San Miniato White Truffle Festival (2015)
Travelling off season has its benefits. We are here at the height of truffle season and during the white truffle festival of San Miniato. This year the Festival is celebrating its 45 anniversary and we were here for the celebration.
Every November more than 100,000 people descend on San Miniato for the Nostra Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco di San Miniato and the narrow streets and small piazzas fill with truffle aromas and stands of vendors displaying enormous amount of local food specialties. The Piazza del Duomo at the top of the hill is where you find most of the fresh truffles, piled in baskets next to a scale, with buyers sniffing and vendors weighing and a lot of money changing hands for a few of these rarified delicacies. The whole scene is a bit intoxicating.
The highly sought after white truffles grow in a few places in Italy, notably in Alba, Piedmonte and in San Miniato. The combination of climate, soil and vegetation of San Miniato make their white truffles prized for their quality and aroma.
Truffles are type of mushrooms that grow underground attached to roots of trees, especially oak but also willows and poplar. Only one truffle grows in each location at one time and truffle hunters are careful not to disturb the environment when harvesting them, to make sure they grow again the following year.
Truffles grow in the wild and cannot be cultivated. Since they grow underground hunters need a dog (or a pig) with heightened sense of smell to sniff out their hiding place. The dogs are trained for truffle hunting from very young age and are ready to lead a hunt by the time they are about four years old. Experienced truffle hunters know their dogs so well and can tell by the dog’s behaviour where the truffles are and even estimate their size. The dogs sniff them out but make no mistake, it’s the truffle hunter who is in charge of the hunt. They talk to their dog, instructing, motivation, exciting them for the hunt and when the moment is right, holding them back so they can pull the treasure out of its dark chamber underground. Sometime the truffle ends up in the dog’s mouth, and it can make for an expensive doggie’s lunch.
Truffle hunters, known as “trifolau” work long and hard and guard their truffle territories as a top secret. There is nothing luxurious or glamorous about it. They often hunt at night or in early foggy, cold mornings, with special lights attached to them and to the their dog. Hunting for truffles is not a walk in the woods, they cover a large territory working fast and looking for these treasures that they can then sell for a high price to vendors and restaurants.
The moment I heard about the festival I looked for accommodation in town and found that all of the hotels were already booked. I tried a few of the agriturismi (that’s plural in Italian) out of the city but no luck there either. I finally found an apartment right in the center of town off the main square and booked it immediately. It turned out to be the perfect location and we could walk out of the building into the hub of things and be immersed in the festivities. The apartment at the Tedesco Residence was in a building dating back to the 13th century and many of the original elements were still intact. We climbed up three flights of high-step stone stairs, ancient and worn from hundreds of years of use. This was not an easy task. The apartment itself contained two huge bedrooms with windows opening onto the spectacular view of the rolling hills and vineyards of Tuscany. A common living room with a TV was directly across the hall and the manager prepared two wild berry jam pies (crostatas) for us and left them on the table. What a lovely gesture.
We arrived hungry and after settling in the apartment went out in search of lunch. We didnt have to go far. Directly in front of the building was Bar Cantini that seemed full of local people and that was were we headed. We settled in the small dining room in the back overlooking the valley and I didn’t know what to look at first, our fellow diners who were a fascinating group of people or the gorgeous views. Everyone was eating truffles: on pasta, with risotto, on fried eggs, on scrambled eggs, on omelettes, it was interesting to say the least.
We ordered tagliatelle with truffles and it was simple and delicious, served in an unpretentious way. A glass of Chianti went with it beautifully and a salad after lunch cleared the palate for things to come. We went back to this cafe several times during our stay, to the point that we were greeted personally and warmly by the staff.
The festival was not starting until Saturday and we had a couple of days to relax and get oriented. There is so much history in that little hilltop village, and we explored as much of it as we could. How these places were ever built is still a mystery to me.
Parking in town by the way was an issue with the festival going on and we were assured that if we leave our car where we parked it, it would be towed away. We are a little bit rebellious by nature and left the car where it was after being assured by the parking attendant that it would be okay until the next day. You have to believe someone. By the next day we were told that they are too busy to tow away anyone and to leave the car there, Worked well for us. The parking lot is below the town on the side of the hill and you ride up an elevator to the main street near Piazza de Popolo, it’s kind of an interesting arrangement and worked fine for us.
For dinner that night we had reservations at a special restaurant, Papaveri e Papere (Ducklings and Poppies) that I thought was in town. Before dinner we asked for directions and found out it was not in town and not within a walking distance. It was “in the country” we were told, but assured it was well worth going there. There is only one taxi in San Miniato, operated by the flower shop owner and it was not available, so we had to move the car from it safe parking spot, hoping there will still be parking available when we return from dinner. We entered the address of the restaurant into our trusted GPS and followed the directions out of town. There, in the middle of nowhere in a dark forest the GPS announce happily, “you arrived at your destination on the left”. Pitch dark forest surrounded us with no restaurant in sight. We kept driving around a little hoping to see something but it was getting annoying with the GPS insisting we are there. We shut the thing off and drove back to the village feeling quite disappointed and wondering how to proceed. We parked the car in the same spot and took the elevator up to the piazza. Luckily our hotel manager drove by, saw us walking and stopped to ask what was happening. She then kindly offered to drive us to the restaurant assuring us it is only a short drive. We piled into her car with her cute little boy in the back and in no time she delivered us to a restaurant in the country below the town. What was the GPS problem I will never know.
We could tell immediately that this was going to be a special evening. We were seated at a table for two in main dining room of the restaurant. There is another dining room at the back and a third enclosed dining area was created outside to accommodate the demand. The restaurant has a modern yet classic look with beautiful white linen, artistic hand made dishes, heavy cutlery and sparkling stemware, just lovely. All three room soon begun to fill and I was surprised to see that at least in our dining room these were all men. Two lone women and myself were the only ones representing the descendants of Eve. What was that about, I wonder.
We had the full attention of Paul Fiaschi, one of the three owners, who helped us with the menu options and wine selection. The menu changes all the time and they did not have time to update the English menu yet.
Needless to say dinner was exceptional and we lingered over the beautiful food and wines for about three hours, watching the other tables, the dishes that were passing around and absorbing the excitement of the festival in the air.
We started with Pamiginao reggiano Mouse with cream of pumpkin and onion balsamic that was light as air and velvety in texture. For pasta course I had the stuffed tortelloni but instead of porcini had it served with white truffles (of course). Creamy and light it was another success. My husband had the lamb with herbs and vegetables that came in a refined presentation and with flavours to match. There was also a fish course and by the time dinner was coming to a close I only had room for a sorbet that was not on the menu but available. A couple of scoop of refreshing lemon sorbet and a few slices of strawberries finished the dinner like a perfect cadenza at the end of a concerto.
To get back up to the village our hotel manager pre-arranged for the flower shop taxi to pick us up. He was busy that night doing a few pick ups but got to the restaurant shorty after we called him. He knew where we were going and delivered us to our hotel in no time.
Once the festival begun it was a flurry of activities. You would not belive the beautiful foods they have available in Tuscany, the cheeses, the olives, breads, olive oils, balsamic vinegars, wines, sweets, no wonder the food here is so good, with this quality and abundance of raw ingredients.
We walked through all of the tents that were set up all over town, tasting, asking questions where possible, buying here and there and enjoying the culinary abundance. In the Piazza del Semonario a kitchen was set un in a tent and cooking demonstrations and tasting carried out by guest chefs. My foodie friends, you know who you are, you should have been there.
Language barrier prevented me from talking in detail with the vendors but tasting we did. I could go on but a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few thousands words worth in pictures.
Okay, I have to stop, but I hope I conveyed a sense of what we experienced at the festival.
Ciao, a presto.