The History of Chocolate

Chocolates by Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (1880) of Modica, Sicily, Italy—Makers of the World’s Most Masculine, Authentic Chocolates!

Overview

It is difficult to conceive of Old World cuisine before its encounter with that of the New World in 1492:  no tomatoes for pizza; no potatoes for vichyssoise; no pineapples for piña colada; no corn for polenta; no chili peppers for salsa; no vanilla for ice cream; and no chocolate for chocolates. But of all the flavors of the known world—Old and New combined—chocolate is widely regarded as the most craved, masculine, and sexy of them all.

If there is a manly food, it is decidedly chocolate.  Admittedly, cucumbers, in obvious and subliminal ways, can conjure images of masculinity.  And there are men who are said to become wildly aroused by the mere sight of mussels, let alone eating them out.  But when it comes to men’s lifestyle, chocolates win “sexiest masculine food,” bar none. Valentine’s Day, the sexiest day of the year, has become synonymous with chocolates. (Somehow, presenting a lover with a platter filled with firm cucumbers or a bowl brimming with mussels on February 14th does not equate to “sexy.”) And many a man can attest to the benefits—actual, collateral, and then, hopefully, horizontal—of presenting a boxful of chocolates to a lover.

Despite its familiarity and ubiquity, however, many of chocolate’s devoted devourers have little or no idea whence the delicacy is derived.  Certainly, God could easily have made a chocolate tree that would each year bear bars of dark and milk chocolates.  But He did not. And had He, it is likely that chocolate—not the apple—would have been declared the Forbidden Fruit.

“Cocoa” means “bitter water” in the ancient Aztec language. Theobroma cacao, the botanical name for the species that grows the fruit, the seeds of which are processed into precious chocolate, is a tree that grows to approximately the size of an apple tree and is native to Meso-America.  Theobroma cacao can only grow in the region 20 degrees north and south of the Equator. Each tree bears about 60 pods per year, the pods taking about five months to mature.  Each pod contains approximately 40 cocoa seeds, called cocoa “beans,” yielding enough chocolate for about two standard-sized chocolate bars or seven cups of chocolate drink.

Coco bean pods are beautiful to behold. About nine inches long and with a circumference of about 11 inches at the center, the pods, which grow attached to the trunk and branches of the tree (as opposed to hanging from branches like many other fruits), are oval-shaped but with ends tapered to a blunt point. Convex grooves running lengthwise along the waxy-surfaced pod which, when ripe, ranges in color from golden yellow to claret, give the fruit the appearance of a wood-turner’s finial more so than a fruit crafted by the hand of nature.  When cut open—usually with the machetes with which the pods are hand-harvested—about 40 seeds, approximately the size of the kernel of a Brazil nut, are revealed.  Each seed is covered in a white, sweet-sour, fruity pulp that may be enjoyably eaten.  But despite the tasty pulp, it is the bitter kernel of the seeds embraced by that palatable pulp that is prized the world over. According to 2012 figures, chocolate was an 83-billion-dollar industry ($13 billion in the United States alone), and chocolate was declared the most popular flavor in the United States.

But to get from the mundane-looking cocoa beans to the product that is at once synonymous with “sexy,” “decadent,” and “luxurious” requires several steps.  The fruits are harvested when ripe, and the seeds, covered in their white pulp, are removed from the pods. The fresh seeds, whitish in color, still covered in pulp, are then placed into shallow wooden boxes, covered with banana leaves, and left to ferment.  After the fermentation process, which is said to enhance the flavor of the seeds and serves to transform their color to brown, the seeds are sun-dried for about one week, a process which causes the seeds to lose about 50 percent of their size.  The dried seeds are then roasted, then “winnowed,” a process that causes the husk of each seed to be removed. The seeds are then ground.  But because of their high fat-content, rather than grinding into a powder, they become a thick, rich liquid called “cocoa liquor.”  The cocoa liquor is then allowed to form into a solid, which is called “cocoa mass.” The cocoa mass is then sold to chocolatiers all over the world, each adding a desired amount of sugar, powdered milk, vanilla, salt, etc., to make the chocolates that are enjoyed by people all over the world. [Alternatively, the dried beans are sold to chocolatiers for further processing.]  Generally, the higher the chocolate-content, the more expensive the product. [“White chocolate” has no chocolate content; instead, it is made from the fat-content, called cocoa butter, of the seeds.]

The History of Chocolate

Chocolate as it is known today is not the chocolate as it first appears in the historical record, where its first usage was to produce a wine made from the fruit’s pulp; imbibed as a bitter ritual concoction flavored with peppers; taken as a medicine; and indulged as an aphrodisiac by the Meso-American peoples from as early as 4000 B.C.E. In some cultures, it was reserved for royalty and the nobility; and the seeds were so regarded by the Aztecs that they were used as currency and even counterfeited.

It is said that Columbus was introduced to the drink during his travels to the New World at the end of the 15th century and into the early years of the 16th but was not impressed.  But it was when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés invaded the Aztec king Montezuma at Tenochtitlan, Mexico, that Europe had its first significant encounter with chocolate.  Instead of mixing water with the pulp then allowing the mixture to ferment, thereby producing a cocoa-derived wine with an alcohol content of approximately 10% by volume, in Montezuma’s Mexico, the tradition was to grind the cocoa beans, thereafter adding hot capsicums to make a bitter, spicy drink. One account claims that Montezuma, who regarded the drink as an aphrodisiac, once drank 50 golden cupfuls of the precious liquid.

When Cortés introduced the drink to Spain in 1519, it was immediately decided that its flavor would be more suitable for European tastes if sweetened with sugar or honey and flavored with vanilla, for example.

For over 100 years, chocolate remained a court secret of Spain, where it was originally, in its bitter form, used as a medicine before being later consumed as a sweetened drink, so much so that a silver service was designed especially for serving cocoa.

But it was in 1660 when Spanish princess Maria Teresa married French king Louis XIV that chocolate began its spread across Europe.  By the middle of the 1700s, chocolate had become popular in the American colony, especially after it became a drink-of-preference after the Boston Tea Party in 1776. [Coffee, the other alternative, was more expensive than cocoa since shipping costs for coffee were significantly higher due to the far distances—at the time from as far away as East Africa and Arabia—from which coffee was imported. ]

In 1828 Dutchman Conrad van Houten invented the cocoa press, a device that extracts the cocoa butter from the “cocoa liquor,” leaving pure, powdered chocolate.  But one of the greatest contributions to chocolate taking its place as one of the world’s favorite flavors was the invention of the chocolate bar in 1847 by Joseph Fry.  By first removing the cocoa butter then adding only a desired amount back into the pure chocolate, Fry invented a solid form of chocolate that could be eaten rather than only drunk.  [The melting-point of the typical commercially available chocolate is body temperature.  But by manipulating the overall percentage of cocoa butter and eggs whites, chocolates with different melting-points can be manufactured. ] Then in 1875, Daniel Peter invented “milk chocolate” when he decided to add powdered milk to chocolate.

Though native to the tropical New World, today, Africa’s Ivory Coast produces 40% of the world’s chocolate.  And many of the regions where the labor-intensive crop is grown have been accused of utilizing child and slave labor to harvest the beans.  It is said that approximately two million children toil in the world’s cocoa plantations.

How chocolate is consumed has evolved over the years.  But since the mid-1800s, when the concept of edible—rather than only drinkable—chocolate emerged, one manufacturer has maintained the old ways of making edible chocolate:  Antica Dolceria Bonajuto ( www.Bonajuto.it ) of the city of Modica, in Sicily, Italy.

Over the course of its long history, Sicily has been conquered and colonized by many peoples, including the Spanish.  So, when the Spaniards brought chocolate-making to Europe, Sicily was a beneficiary of that coveted knowledge.

Involved in the confections business since the 1820s, Modica’s Bonajuto family opened their dolceria in 1880; and since that fateful day, six generations of the family have perfected their product, which is today widely regarded as the world’s most authentic, sexy, and masculine chocolate. But such accolades are not a novelty for Bonajuto:  Over 100 years ago, in 1911, the family’s chocolate received national and international acclaim when it won the gold medal at the International Agricultural Industry Exposition in Rome. And innovation, tempered by tradition, remains the company’s guidepost.

The primary reason for the chocolate’s esteem is its use of only the finest chocolate beans and the utilization of old, coupled with new, production methods:  To the extent possible, the chocolate is still handmade by beautifully bronzed Sicilians using the once-nearly extinct cold-processed method.  The rich, almost-black chocolate, which is studded, diamond-like, with sugar crystals that do not dissolve during the cold-processing, is known as “The Black Gold of Modica.” And today, Antica Bonajuto Dolceria is considered the “ambassador of Modica chocolate.”

 

 

 

Japanese Wagyu: The World’s Most Luxurious, Delicious, and Expensive Beef!

Wagyu Beef of Japan

Cattle are not native to the islands of Japan. But their presence in Japan’s archaeological record reaches back as far as the 5th or 6th century C.E. Herds, such as that on the island of Mishima, have been isolated from subsequently imported breeds and suggest that the original Japanese cattle were relatively small. Because Buddhism, which came to Japan in the 6th century, proscribed the eating of four-legged animals, cattle were historically used primarily as beasts of burden, not as a source of meat. But in 1873 when the proscription was lifted as a result of Westernization, Japanese people began eating beef. Larger breeds were imported and bred with domestic varieties in order to increase yield. And it is these hybrids that form the breeds that produce the prized wagyu beef. In 1991, when Japan relaxed its rules pertaining to imported beef, less expensive imported beef threatened local production. But shrewd Japanese farmers responded by promoting the unique, flavorful qualities of domestic beef in order to secure market share: To the Japanese palate, taste trumps size and price.

When it comes to meat, it is said that the flavor is in the fat. And high-quality wagyu beef is copiously marbled with unsaturated fat, rich in oleic acid. It is therefore small wonder that Japanese wagyu beef is one of world’s gastronomical luxuries.

The word “wagyu” literally means “Japanese cow/cattle,” “wa” meaning “Japanese,” and “gyu” meaning “cow/cattle.” There are four distinct wagyu breeds that have been specifically bred by the Japanese because of the breeds’ genetic predisposition to producing marbled flesh: Japanese Black; Japanese Brown (also known as “Japanese Red”); Japanese Polled; and Japanese Shorthorn. The four breeds are also occasionally crossbred with each other. Japanese Black accounts for approximately 90 percent all wagyu cattle. But genetics alone does not produce the beef that the Japanese—and now the world—regard as the finest beef on Earth. Husbandry also plays a significant role.

At the age of about eight to ten months, wagyu calves are put on special diets of grain, grass, hay, apples, and, to stimulate appetite, beer. And since the cattle are kept in stalls rather than allowed to roam freely over pastureland (so as to prohibit muscle-growth, keep the flesh soft, and encourage body fat), they are regularly brushed and massaged to promote healthy bodies and are cleaned with saki wine to keep ticks and fleas at bay. After two years, the flesh of the fattened cattle is laced with striations of primarily unsaturated fat which imparts flavor and makes the meat exceedingly soft. The meat is officially graded based on marbling, color, firmness, and fat color and quality, with a total of 15 grades possible. And through a detailed 10-digit numbering system, a particular cut of wagyu beef can be tracked to as far back as the maternal grandsire of the slaughtered animal. Telephone Apps and scanning devices allow customers to verify wagyu authenticity. A recognizable wagyu certification mark verifies wagyu pedigree, production standards, safety, and taste.

High-quality wagyu beef is so tender that it seems to literally melt in the mouth; and its flavor is so compelling that it is regarded as the world’s most delicious beef. In Japan, wagyu beef is cooked and served as thin slices (about the size of a slice of roast beef from a deli). When eaten with chopsticks, the slice is picked up, the desired portion is bitten off, and the remaining portion is placed back onto/into the dish, the process being repeated until the slice is entirely consumed.

Foie Gras: Everything a Gentleman Should Know About One of France’s Great Culinary Luxuries

Foie Gras

“Foie gras” is French for “fat liver.” And that is precisely what this time-honored delicacy is: the fattened-up liver of a goose or duck. It could perhaps be best likened to a dish comprised of one part liver and four parts butter: It is absolutely, shamelessly, sybaritically delicious. Though foie gras is enjoyed in many parts of the world, especially in Europe, the United States, and China, it is a quintessentially French food—so much so that what qualifies as foie gras, at least in France, is determined by French law, which states that foie gras is the liver of a goose or duck that has been forced-fed corn by gavage, involuntary feeding by use of a tube inserted into the stomach via the mouth. Outside France, the term “foie gras” may be used to describe goose and duck liver that has been fattened by natural feeding, but to the French, who are undoubtedly the authorities on foie gras, any method short of gavage would be cause for a “coup de gras.”

The History of Foie Gras

The inspiration for foie gras, despite the controversial and “unnatural” manner in which it is made, may have come from nature itself: Migratory birds, prior to departing on their long journeys, gorge themselves on food so as to build up fat reserves to sustain themselves on their arduous pilgrimages. And men who may have slaughtered those migratory birds just prior to their departure may have realized the gastronomical benefits of their extra fat. As far back as 2500 B.C.E., the Egyptians engaged in the practice of force-feeding geese, as evidenced by a bas relief scene in the tomb of Mereruka, a royal official of the 6th dynasty, in which workers grasp geese by their necks to push feed down their throats. Apparently, the Egyptian practice of fattening geese spread to other regions because three thousand years later, Cratinus, the 5th-century Greek comic poet, describes geese-fatteners, though no specific reference is made in these early records of geese being fattened for the specific purpose of fattening their livers. By the first century C.E., however, Pliny the Elder describes foie gras as a distinct food when he credits his contemporary, Marcus Gavius Apicius, with engaging in the practice of feeding dried figs to geese in order to enlarge their livers. A duck in the wild might double its weight in the autumn months, storing extra fat throughout its body and especially in its liver, in preparation for its migration. But a force-fed duck produces a liver that is six to ten times its normal size.

The Making of Foie Gras

Toulouse geese and Mulard ducks, the latter a cross between a male Muscovy duck and a female Pekin duck, are the breeds most often used for foie gras. ( The Mulard, also spelled “Moulard,” is a sterile hybrid, hence its name, which derives from “mule,” the sterile hybrid of a male donkey and a female horse). The birds used for foie gras are usually slaughtered at approximately three months old. They are kept in a building with straw flooring for the first month of their lives; then they are put outside to graze on grasses for several weeks; thereafter, they are brought back inside for, gradually, longer periods of time before the final stage—the forced feeding. During the forced-feeding stage, which lasts 12 to 15 days for ducks and 15 to 18 days for geese, the birds are confined to tiny individual or group cages. The feeding entails inserting an 8”- to 10”-tube made of steel or rubber, to which a funnel is attached, into the animal’s esophagus via its mouth. The food consists of boiled corn mash to which fat is added in order to facilitate ingestion. This diet results in a large quantity of fat accumulating in the liver, which, as a result, takes on a buttery consistency and a yellowish color. Ducks are fed twice per day, and geese are fed up to four times per day. If an auger is used, each feeding lasts from 45 to 60 seconds. But if the more modern pneumatic pumps are used, each feeding lasts about three seconds. Use of the pneumatic pump requires making a small incision in the animal’s esophagus into which the feeding device is inserted for each feeding. According to foie gras farmers, special efforts are made so as not to damage the animals during feedings, but several studies have shown that birds oftentimes develop inflammation of the walls of the proventriculus after gavage, and records show an overall marked increase in mortality rates during the force-feeding stages of foie gras production.

Again, in order to meet the French definition of “foie gras,” the birds must be force-fed; but other nations allow the birds to achieve the fattened-liver condition by eating freely, ad libitum, to their hearts’—even if not to their livers’—content. Some purists, however—especially French ones—are convinced that this method does not produce satisfactory results. Outside France, livers fattened by such alternative methods are variably labeled “fatty goose liver,” “ethical foie gras,” “humane foie gras,” or even “foie gras.”

Another method—the manipulation of the bird’s hypothalamus—produces a liver more akin to that achieved by gavage. The hypothalamus is the portion of the brain that controls several basic drives in animals: hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex, for example. And some farmers have developed a procedure to surgically generate a lesion on the ventromedian section of the hypothalamus—a ventromedian hypothalamic (VMH) lesion—which impedes satiety, thereby causing the birds to overeat if food is readily available. The result is that such birds eat approximately twice the amount they would normally eat, fattening themselves—and their livers—in the process.

The Regulation of Foie Gras

Several nations and jurisdictions around the world prohibit the production of foie gras. However, very few places, if any, make illegal the purchase or possession of foie gras. Consequently, foie gras, despite the controversial manner in which it is oftentimes produced, is usually available around the world on menus featuring fine French cuisine. Various animal rights organizations engage in public relations campaigns to educate the public about gavage; but for many people, like the connoisseurs of veal, the the end justifies the means. And in France, pursuant to French law, “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France.” Therefore, many French and French-influenced cultures, as well as Francophiles the world over, view traditional foie gras as their birthright.

But as culturally justifiable, luxurious, and delicious as foie gras may be, a gentleman, in his capacity as caretaker of the planet, must consider the manner in which foie gras is traditionally made, making every reasonable effort to patronize the establishments that uphold ethical production standards. Every creature, including those consumed by mankind, is deserving of humanity.

Various Culinary Traditions of Foie Gras

In France, on the market, foie gras exists in various presentations, each legally defined and priced from more expensive to less expensive. “Foie gras entier” (whole foie gras) is made of two, whole liver lobes, whether cooked (“cuit”), semi-cooked (“mi-cuit”), or uncooked (“frais”). There is also “foie gras,” which is made of portions of liver, reassembled together. “Bloc de foie gras” is a fully cooked, molded block consisting of at least 98% foie gras; but if labeled “bloc de foie gras avec morceau” (“with pieces”), it must contain at least 50% foie gras in the case of goose foie gras, and at least 30% in the case of duck. There are also “pâté de foie gras” and “mousse de foie gras,” both of which must contain at least 50% foie gras, while “parfait de foie gras” must contain at least 75% foie gras. There is also a multitude of other preparations that do not have legally defined criteria. Cooked foie gras is usually sold in glass or metal containers, thereby enhancing its longevity.

Seer Torshi (haft saleh)/(seven-year) Pickled Garlic: One of the Gastronomical Luxuries of Persia

Seer Torshi (haft saleh)/ (seven-year) Pickled Garlic

Some of life’s luxuries are simple, inexpensive, but luxurious nonetheless. Seer torshi haft saleh is one such luxury. Seer torshi haft saleh is the pickled garlic, aged for seven years, of Persia (Iran). Whole fists of garlic—skin and all—are rinsed clean in cool water and allowed to air-dry in a colander or sieve. Once dry, the garlic fists are stacked upright into a large, hot water-sterilized glass jar. One-half teaspoon of salt is added for each fist of garlic; then regular, room-temperature, cider vinegar is poured over the garlic fists, completely covering them. The glass jar is then tightly sealed—preferably with a glass or plastic lid to avoid corrosion over time—and placed in a cool, dark place for at least seven years (and sometimes for as long as 20 years!). The result: soft, candy-sweet, amber-colored, garlic fists, the cloves of which are eaten one by one (along with the softened skin) as a delicacy to accompany any savory dish or as a cocktail treat, the way olives or smoked nuts may be eaten as an appetizer. Some Persian families establish a jar of seer torshi each year on Nowruz (also spelled “Norooz,” “Nourooz,” etc.), the first day of spring, the New Year’s Day of the Persian calendar. Each jar is identified by the year of its establishment.

[ When the luxury of time is not available, a “quick” version of seer torshi may be made: Rinsed, air-dried garlic fists are stacked upright into a large glass jar; a mixture of cider and balsamic or wine vinegars, salt, and about a tablespoon of honey is brought to a boil; the hot vinegar mixture is then poured over the garlic fists, completely covering them; the jar is then tightly sealed and placed in a cool, dark place for about two or three months before the succulent garlic fists are served. ]

Edible Gold and Silver–for Decorating (before Devouring!) the Human Body during Sexual Foreplay

“The procedure, it is said, is simple:  The body part is slightly moistened (if nature has not already seen to that!), then the tissue paper bearing the metal leaf is gently placed onto the body part, metal-down (“growers” and “show-ers” calculating accordingly). The tissue paper is then carefully lifted away, leaving the gold- or silver-adorned body part in all its glittering glory….”

 

Gold Leaf (23 karat edible gold—96% gold, 4% silver) and Silver Leaf (99.9% edible silver)

It is oftentimes said, especially in the fashion industry, that crows and humans are a lot alike: They are attracted to “bling.” But despite mankind’s alleged innate penchant for objects resplendent, there is something revoltingly decadent, and, arguably, ungentlemanly, about eating precious metals: It somehow smacks of tales of monarchs of yore pulverizing pearls and imbibing them with nectar, the mythological drink of the gods, or of “Let them eat cake,” the infamous declaration commonly misattributed to Queen Marie Antoinette. After all, there must be at least a million and one other things on which a gentleman could spend his hard-earned money in order to delight himself…. But even so, there is no denying that for thousands of years—despite the fact that neither gold nor silver has any taste or smell discernible by humans [Well, until the Manetti company, at Expo Milano 2015, introduced edible gold crumbs in four of life’s greatest flavors and aromas: vanilla, lemon, white truffles, and olive oil], and that neither metal has any nutritional value—mankind, from Africa to Asia to Europe and now the rest of the world, has eaten gold and silver, some cultures citing aphrodisiacal justifications. All the gold ever mined—since the beginning of human history—would fit into a 100-cubic-feet container. And much of that gold has been used to make jewelry, jewelry-making remaining the single largest use for gold. But from over 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians would eat gold for medicinal and healing purposes; the Chinese, as far back as 2000 B.C.E., were known to eat gold during certain sacred ceremonies; and the Indians and Japanese have long used gold and silver to decorate food. But it was upon the tables of the great houses of Renaissance Italy that gold-adorned food and drink became, and remains, a part of Western tradition.

Traditionally, when gold or silver is consumed, it is not—for obvious reasons—ingested in the form of nuggets or jewelry or coins. Instead, it is eaten as leaf, flakes (the size of Kellogg’s corn flakes), crumbs, or dust. But not all gold and silver leaf, for example, is manufactured for human consumption. Gold leaf to be used for gilding furniture or picture frames oftentimes contains a percentage of copper, which, in high concentrations, is toxic to humans. So a gentleman who wishes to consume gold and silver must be certain to obtain edible varieties. Edible silver is 99.9% silver, and edible gold is typically 96% gold and 4% silver since pure gold is somewhat soft and somewhat sticky, making it difficult to manipulate for food-decoration purposes. The small percentage of silver is added, therefore, to give the gold more workability.

Vark” (also spelled “varak” or “varakh”) is the Sanskrit word for any foil comprised of pure metal, typically of silver, but also of gold, used for garnishing food. In South Asian cuisine, vark (referred to as “edible gold leaf” and “edible silver leaf” in the Western World) is used to decorate sweets. In the European Union, gold and silver are approved for food foils (When created as decorative food additives, gold is assigned the E-number E175 and silver, E174 [“E” standing for “Europe”]). In the United States, edible gold and silver are regarded as food additives, and like in the EU, may be used to decorate food and drink. And both edible gold and silver are certified as kosher. In addition, because gold and silver are inert metals, they pass through the digestive tract without being absorbed into the body. (Besides, the quantities utilized in normal consumption are miniscule: One ounce of pure gold [28.3 grams/31.1 grams per troy ounce] can be hammered into a 10.7-square-yard [nine square-meters] sheet of gold leaf, which can produce approximately 80 twenty-five-sheet booklets of 3” X 3” gold leaf sheets; and the total metal intake for sweets decorated with gold or silver is less than one milligram per kilogram [2.2 pounds] of sweets. The typical circa-3-inch-square sheet of gold leaf or silver leaf has a thickness of 0.2 – 0.4 microns. Yes, inappropriate consumption of silver can cause argyria, a symptom of which is the human skin taking on a bluish or bluish-gray color. But which gentleman in his right mind would eat bowlfuls of silver, day in, day out, for years?)

But as with all products which are to be ingested, the highest level of due diligence should be exercised. And when it comes to edible precious metals, the company Giusto Manetti Battiloro of Florence, Italy sets the “gold standard.” From its earliest recorded beginnings in the 16th century, to its affiliation with the great Renaissance era Medici family, to its presumed unintended destruction at the hands of Allied Forces bombing during World War II, to its present status—four hundred years after its earliest days—as a multinational entity, the name Manetti and its various commercial manifestations have been linked to luxurious gold.

Because baptismal records of the region date only as far back as 1580, nothing is known of the parentage of Matteo Manetti, the family’s patriarch, who lived in the village of Quinto, a few kilometers from “La Patraia,” a Medici villa, some time between the late 1400s and the early 1500s. What is known, though, is that his grandson, also named Matteo Manetti, began distinguishing the family’s name in the gold business when he moved to Rome to work alongside Battino Bologna on the gilding of the golden ball atop Michelangelo’s dome on St. Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica project established the young Manetti’s reputation so much so that in 1602, when lightening destroyed the golden ball of Florence’s Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, young Manetti was summoned to the city to restore the ball. On September 18, 1602, one month after receiving the commission, the work was completed to much acclaim, resulting in Matteo being appointed Cathedral Goldsmith, the appointment regarded as the Manetti family’s first major public recognition. And it is that same Matteo Manetti who would shortly thereafter establish the first Manetti workshop, employing gilders, decorators, and “battilori,” (Italian for “goldbeaters”), craftsmen who transform gold and silver into thin sheets or “leaf” for gilding, silvering, and/or eating. Matteo further solidified the Manetti family’s ties with the powerful Medici family when in 1633 his son Lorenzo Manetti was baptized godson of Don Lorenzo de’ Medici (1599-1648), thereby buttressing a relationship with the Medici family which is believed to have officially begun by the infant Lorenzo’s grandfather, Antonio Manetti, who is reputed to have worked on the restoration of “La Patraia” for Don Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The 1700s saw the Manetti family’s sustained distinction when in 1732 Nicolò Manetti was appointed Consul of the Academy of Drawing, an appointment which remains to this day a great source of family pride. But perhaps the turning point of the family’s fortune occurs in 1811 when Luigi Manetti (1791-1855), son of Domenico Manetti (1753-1816), embarked, at his father’s suggestion, upon a tour of Europe—Italy, Spain, France, and Prussia—in the throes of the Industrial Revolution to witness, firsthand, a transforming Europe. In 1816, the year his forward-thinking father died, Luigi returned to Italy, poised to give new life to his family’s business. In 1820 he purchased a shop in the heart of Florence, the focus of the business being the production of gold leaf. And in honor of his first-born son, Giusto Manetti (1818-1890), Luigi named the business Giusto Manetti Battiloro, the name which remains with the enterprise to this day. With the knowledge of industrialization gained during his five-year sojourn, Luigi began modernizing the company. And following in the footsteps of his father, Giusto further modernized the company and oversaw its emerging national reputation.

But it was Giusto’s son Adolfo Manetti (1855-1926), who besides further mechanizing gold leaf production through the use of automatic hammers, began exporting the company’s products to other European countries: Giusto Manetti Battiloro, after 300 years, had emerged as a company known outside the borders of Italy. And today, with subdivisions Manetti East and Manetti Iberia, the company is a bona-fide multinational, headquartered at Campi Bisenzio, Florence.

Besides rising from the ashes of World War II under the leadership of the family’s war hero Giusto Manetti (1891-1961), named in honor of his grandfather, the company’s crowning glory occurred, prophetically, in 2002 when the Manetti family financed the restoration of the golden ball of Brunelleschi’s dome at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, exactly 400 years after their ancestor Matteo Manetti, namesake and grandson of the family’s patriarch Matteo Manetti, had answered the call to restore the city’s lightening-destroyed symbol in 1602. So the moral of the story is: When it comes to Manetti gold and silver (www.manetti.it ), a gentleman can put his money where his mouth is! And what is even more appetizing is that gold leaf and silver leaf, because so little precious metal is used to form each sheet, is relatively inexpensive: A packet of twenty-five 3” X 3” sheets of gold leaf typically retails for around $70.00 on www.Amazon.com . So edible leaf packs a lot of “bling” without too much “cha-ching!”

Some of life’s greatest moments—anniversaries, weddings, and births, for example—are celebrated with food and drink, and with gold and silver. So when food, drink, and those two precious metals are combined, the result is usually a tour de force of over-the-top proportions. Many people know about Goldschläger, the liqueur with flakes of floating gold. And long-stemmed gourmet strawberries are beautiful and delicious in their own right. But when they are wrapped in gold leaf, the element of glamor is added, making the decorated whole greater than the sum of its individual parts. Likewise, there are few things in life more delicious than dark, bitter-sweet chocolate. But when it is presented, gift-like, covered in edible silver or gold, it is elevated to the mythical food of Aztec gods. And it is said that some sexy, 21st -century gentlemen dress (or permit to be dressed) certain body parts with edible gold and silver, offering those parts to their lovers to be savored. The procedure, it is said, is simple: The body part is slightly moistened (if nature has not already seen to that!), then the tissue paper bearing the metal leaf is gently placed onto the body part, metal-down (“growers” and “show-ers” calculating accordingly). The tissue paper is then carefully lifted away, leaving the gold- or silver-adorned body part in all its glittering glory….

Italian Porchetta–one of the culinary luxuries of the world

Porchetta (of Ariccia, Italy [in the Province of Rome])

What lechón is to a Puerto Rican, porchetta is to an Italian. Porchetta (pronounced “porketta”) is one of those simple, affordable luxuries that countrymen crave while away in distant lands; pregnant women, in their frequent fits of raging cravings, demand of their “baby-daddies”; and the terminally ill request on their deathbeds.

Pork is a delicious meat. But when it is prepared as porchetta, it is elevated to a delicacy. The Italian delicacy of porchetta is the boneless, roasted torso of a pig. Though prepared and eaten throughout Italy, the dish is believed to have originated in central Italy, especially in the Lazio region, which includes Rome, and is most associated with the town of Ariccia.

During the slaughtering process, the pig is eviscerated, and its four legs are removed. Occasionally, the head is also removed, but it is oftentimes left intact so as to enhance the visual presentation of the dish. The animal’s ribcage is neatly cut away from the carcass, leaving only lean, fat, and skin for the making of porchetta.

Laid out skin-down onto a large, flat surface, the deboned carcass is seasoned primarily with ample salt, black pepper, fresh rosemary, fresh fennel herb, garlic, and juniper berries. (Some cooks saturate the inside of the carcass with white wine prior to applying the seasonings). A long spit—long enough to extend about one foot on each end beyond both ends of the pig—made of metal or wood is laid lengthwise atop the seasoned carcass before both sides of the carcass are brought together around the spit and sewn together, lengthwise, using a bodkin and sturdy twine. Once secured with twine, the skin of the carcass is pierced in various areas with the point of a knife so that excess melted fat can escape during the roasting process. In certain parts of Italy, such as Umbria, or in Valdarno in the region of Tuscany, prior to positioning the spit atop the seasoned carcass, the animal’s internal organs—the liver, kidneys, and heart—are laid out lengthwise, chopped or whole, in the center of the carcass such that after the roasting process and the spit is removed, the delicacy, when sliced depth-wise as is the custom (the way one would slice an orange so as to produce “wagon-wheel” rings), each slice is studded with a portion of an organ. Alternatively, the sides of the carcass may be sewn together lengthwise without a spit in the middle, then placed atop a rack so as to facilitate oven-roasting and the falling away of excess fat.

The pork is slow-roasted in an oven or on a spit in a rotisserie or above a charcoal fire for several hours until the skin attains a rich, golden-mahogany-brown color and a crisp texture. In Sardinia, where the delicacy is known as “porceddu,” suckling piglets are typically used and are slow-roasted over juniper and/or myrtle wood.

Porchetta has been selected by the Italian Minestero delle Politiche Agricole, Alimentari e Forestali (Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies) as one of Italy’s traditional foods of cultural relevance.

Besides being sold as a popular street-food in Rome, served as the filling for “pizza bianca,” porchetta is also eaten as a meat course in many Italian households and is served as a sandwich at picnics. Porchetta is also typically sold from food vans, especially at street festivals or outdoor markets. But perhaps the grandest porchetta event of them all is the Sagra della Porchetta di Ariccia (Village Festival of Porchetta of Ariccia), held annually during the first Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of September.

Lardo di Colonnata I.G.P. (Fatback Aged in Marble Vats)– one of the all-time gastronomical luxuries of Italy

 

Lardo di Colonnata I.G.P.

Lardo di Colonnata is one of the great gastronomical traditions of Italy. Simply put, it is aged fatback. But what delicious fatback it is!

Colonnata, its earliest recorded history dating to around 40 B.C.E., is a hamlet with a present-day population of about 300 residents, nestled in the Apuan Alps, the mountain range that is home to world-famous Carrara, situated on the Carrione River, about 100 kilometers west-northwest of Florence. Carrara is where the quarries from which Michelangelo obtained his marble are situated; and Colonnata—its name believed to have derived from the Latin word “columna,” meaning column, since many of the marble columns that decorated the Roman Empire were of marble from the area—is a subdivision of the city and commune of Carrara, in the Province of Massa Carrara, in the Region of Tuscany. But while Carrara is, in general, famous for its white and blue-gray marble, Colonnata is, in particular, famous for its pearl-white lardo—aged in precious marble!

How and when it first occurred to people to cure fatback in “conche,” hollowed-out, sarcophagus-looking (sans decorative carvings) blocks of white marble from the Canaloni marble beds, has been lost to history. (Whereas some deposits of marble in Carrara proper make for excellent sculpture material, the marble from the Canaloni Basin is more suitable for columns and other architectural elements. The marble is hard, dry, and glassy. Today, it is known that the porous, calcium carbonate surface of the marble absorbs some of the fat’s cholesterol that is not naturally reduced during the long aging process and also helps to create the salty, brownish brine, “salamora” in Italian, a byproduct of the aging process. And university studies have confirmed that the final product is bacteria-free—after all, very few things can live in a vat filled with salt). Any or all of the area’s primary inhabitant-cultures could have initiated or contributed to the tradition of lardo di Colonnata. The Romans were very much aware of the importance of pig fat in their diet, especially for people engaged in strenuous work and activities—so much so that the Justinian Code stipulated that Roman soldiers were to receive a ration of pork fat every three days. The historical record indicates that the processing of pigmeat increased considerably during the Lombard occupation. (Master masons during the Lombard period would receive 10 pounds of pork fat as a condition precedent to their beginning a newly assigned project). And in the medieval period, there were significant advancements in the techniques for processing and conserving pork. Discovered in the area are marble basins, each hollowed-out from single, solid blocks, dating from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, that were used for curing pig fat. Also noteworthy is the fact that several of Colonnata’s 19th -century edifices depict, in low-relief, images of St. Anthony, the hermit who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries and by the 11th century had become known for his work in curing persons inflicted with shingles (popularly known as “holy fire” or “Saint Anthony’s fire”) by applying pig fat to the skin of the inflicted, the saint oftentimes depicted in those reliefs accompanied by a pig. Additionally, of note is the fact that Colonnata’s parish church is dedicated to St. Bartholomew, the patron saint of butchers, and that for many years on St. Bartholomew’s Day, there was an annual pig fat festival held in the village, attracting a large number of Italian and international connoisseurs. Clearly, the urge to preserve fat as a source of food, especially for sustenance during the harsh winter months, was the result of experienced scarcity. And with the Colonnatese being a quarrying people, marble would have been a readily available material that could be put to collateral use to protect the aging fat from scavenging animals and to conceal it from marauding and invading humans. What is known for sure is that with the decline of Rome in the 5th century, the “Barbarians,” most famously the Lombards, who ruled Italy from 568 to 774, took up residence in the area, joining the remaining quarry workers (who were typically people from across the known world, enslaved by the Romans and brought to the region to toil in the marble quarries), and the focus of the area shifted from quarrying impeccable marble for statutes and monuments and buildings to raising swine and producing the items derived therefrom, lardo perhaps being one of them. (Today, the Colonnatese do not raise their own pigs for lardo production since only the fatback is used and the region is not conducive to the production of the other traditional pork products of Italy. So the producers of lardo purchase suitable fatbacks from swine farms). What is also known is that from time immemorial, the aging of lard has been part and parcel to Colonnatese culture. But however the tradition of lardo di Colonnata emerged, it eventually became apparent that there is something particular about the Colonnata microclimate that makes the mountainside village perhaps the best place on Earth for aging fatback: high altitude (average height of 1,800 feet above sea level); high precipitation; high humidity; moderate summer temperatures; and small or modest daily temperature fluctuations throughout the year. The cold, white marble basins used for curing the fat promote the condensation of the humidity in the air, converting the salt into brine. And all the foregoing factors become even more pronounced in the marble cellars and workrooms where the fat is aged.

The method of producing lardo di Colonnata is at once simple, beautiful, noble, unique. Prior to being packed tight with slabs of fatback, the marble vat is “prepped”: A fist of garlic is halved at its “equator,” then the open face of the fist is rubbed onto the entire interior surface of the marble vat, the garlic serving as a natural antibiotic. Fresh (trimmed within 72 hours of slaughter and never having been subjected to freezing since freezing would seal the pores, thereby adversely affecting the infusion of the salt and flavorings and the release of the moisture of the fat), quadrangular slabs of fatback, at least 1.25 inches thick, but usually about 2.5 inches thick, are cut from the back of pig—the section from immediately behind the head to about midway down its center-back or even all the way to the rump—washed with cool water, then pat-dried. The slabs of fresh pork are then generously rub-covered with coarse sea salt and placed skin-down into the marble conche, the bottom of which has been covered with a layer of sea salt then a layer of seasonings comprised primarily of black pepper, with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon, and a blend of herbs such as fresh rosemary (which, besides adding flavor, also serves as an antioxidant), sage, and oregano, as well as chopped garlic cloves. (The various ingredients and their proportions vary from producer to producer). The salt-rubbed slabs of fatback are snugly arranged so as to occupy the entire bottom of the marble box. A layer of coarse sea salt, then a layer of herbs and spices, is evenly distributed over the fat before the stacking process of skin-down fatback, followed by salt and seasonings, then followed by another layer of fatback, etc., is repeated until the marble container is filled, a layer of salt and spices being the uppermost layer. The marble container is then sealed with a snug-fitting marble lid, and the pork is allowed to age for a minimum of six months, but typically for an average of nine to 12 months, and possibly for as many as four years, in the ideal Colonnata climate. The aging of the product must take place in a site with little ventilation and no artificial air-conditioning. At the end of an aging cycle, the cured fat is extracted and packaged, and the remaining brine is vacuum-removed from the conche, the vat thereafter washed clean with a solution of hot water and vinegar and allowed to air-dry. Immediately prior to receiving a new batch of fatback for aging, the interior surface of the vat is again rubbed with fresh garlic as described above.

Per production rules, the slaughtering of the pigs and processing of the fat occurs only in the colder months of the year, September to May, inclusive. (In the past, the pigs were slaughtered and the fatback processed only in the coldest months—January and February—in order to safeguard the natural character of the production process). The result, at the end of the aging process, is a moist, fragrant, buttery-soft, melt-in-the-mouth, sweet-savory, exquisitely seasoned fat that is traditionally sliced paper-thin and laid atop slices of crisp bread and garnished with freshly chopped tomatoes to be eaten as antipasti. Lardo di Colonnata is also traditionally served as a complement to fresh onions and salted anchovies. (In the olden days, whenever meat was scarce, laborers would sustain themselves with lardo sandwiches—thin slices of lardo di Colonnato between two hefty slices of homemade bread and nothing more).

Lardo di Colonnata received I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) (Protected Geographical Indication) status in 2004, meaning that only lardo made within the specified geographical region—per established production standards—may bear the designation, “Lardo di Colonnata I.G.P.”

Today, with the mechanization of quarrying, most of Colonnata’s population has emigrated in search of other work opportunities, leaving a native population numbering only in the hundreds. But the hands-on, cottage-industry nature of the production of lardo di Colonnata has ensured its survival as a labor-intensive delicacy. And today, the product constitutes the principal economic resource of the village. Perhaps the most celebrated producer of lardo di Colonnata is the firm of Larderia Fausto Guadagni, www.larderiafaustoguadagni.com , whose family has been producing the delicacy for generations. The commercial enterprise was established in 1949. And since the 1950s, the product has been receiving national and international acclaim as one of the culinary luxuries of the world.

But all lardos are not from Colonnata. A buyer must therefore be aware of what to look for if what he desires is “the real McCoy.” Lardo di Colonnata I.G.P. is typically sold in slab-form in vacuum-packed plastic (or some other suitable) packaging, weighing between 250 and 5,000 grams. The product may also be sold sliced or diced and packaged accordingly. The label on the packaging must bear clear and of legible characters; the logo of village of Colonnata must be on the package; the words “Lardo di Colonnata,” followed by the designation I.G.P. or “Indicazione Geografica Protteta” must be the most prominent lettering on the packaging; and there must be a non-reusable product seal affixed to the rind of the product, among other labeling requirements.

(A similar high-quality product, Valle d’Aosta’s lardo d’Arnad, is made in the Aosta Valley).

 

Truffles–One of the Luxuries of Life

Truffles

Truffles, one of the world’s most expensive natural foods, are actually subterranean mushrooms, though they look more like gnarled potatoes. Dubbed “diamonds of the kitchen,” in 2010, a truffle weighing just over three pounds—one of the largest found in decades—sold at auction for $330,000 USD. Typically, however, even the most desirable truffles sell for about $6,000 USD per pound, based on 2013 pricing. But there is more to luxury than price; and that is certainly the case with truffles, where the elusive delicacy intertwines the lives of trees and flies and pigs and dogs and, of course, man.

There are scores of species of truffles, but it is the genus Tuber that is the most prized as food. The word “truffle” seems to have derived from the Latin “tuber,” meaning “swelling” or “lump”—the same derivation that led to the word “tumor.” Eventually, “tuber” became “tufer,” and, in turn, gave rise to variations in several European languages: “trufa” in Spanish; “truffe” in French; and “trøffel” in Danish, for example.

One of the primary roles of fungi in any given ecosystem is to decompose organic materials. The fungi that manifest into truffles form symbiotic relationships with the roots of certain trees, namely beech, oak, pine, hazel, poplar, and hornbeam, and thrive between the leaf litter and well-drained, dry, limestone and other calcareous soils that are either neutral or alkaline. As such, the environments best suited for the presence of truffles are specific and limited.

Of the edible truffles, two are most highly esteemed: the “white truffle” of Italy; and the “black truffle” of France. The “white truffle,” or “Alba madonna” (Tuber magnatum) hails from the countryside around the Italian cities of Alba and Asti, as well as from the Langhe and Montferrat areas of the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The “Alba madonna” is also found in the Molise region, located alongside the Abruzzo region, of southern Italy, and in the hills around San Miniato in the Tuscan region. White truffles mature in the autumn, and for the truffles market in Alba, the “Fiera del Tartufo” (Truffle Fair), October and November are its busiest months. Pale-cream in color, or brown with white marbling, Tuber magnatum is the world’s most expensive and desirable truffle. Though the largest white truffles are about the size of a man’s fist, truffles of that size are extremely rare; most are much smaller, about the size of a walnut or golf ball.

The Italian peninsula is home to other edible white truffles—Tuber magnatum pico of the northern and central regions, as well as Tuber borchii, a whitish truffle from the regions of Tuscany, Romagna, Umbria, the Marche, and Molise—but none of them are as aromatic as Tuber magnatum of Piedmont.

France’s Périgord region is home to the “black truffle” (Tuber melanosporum), also called “black Périgord truffle.” Capable of attaining a size of about two inches in diameter and about five ounces in weight, black truffles grow symbiotically with oak and hazel trees—especially those of upper Provence, Périgord, and Lalbenque in Quercy—and are harvested from the late autumn to the winter, January being the month when the mushroom attains its most pronounced aroma. While France, Spain, and Italy are most known for black truffles, large quantities have recently been found in Serbia. And the prized mushroom is known to grow as far away as Tazmania. At Richerenches in Vaucluse, France’s largest truffles market, black truffles were reportedly sold for $3,000 USD per pound in 2013.

Cultivating Truffles

One of the primary reasons for the market prices of truffles is dwindling supplies in the face of ever-increasing demand: 2,200 tons were reportedly harvested in 1890; 300 tons in 1914; and a meager 25 to 150 tons were harvested annually during the first decade of the 21st century. Another reason for the exorbitant prices for truffles is the elusive nature of the delicacy. The first written accounts of truffles occur about 4,000 years ago in the inscriptions of the Sumerians, where they describe the eating habits of their enemies, the Amorites, who occupied lands that are today a part of Syria. In classical times, as evidenced by the writings of Greek historian Plutarch, it was believed that truffles were the result of a convergence of lightning, warmth, and water in the soil. And Juvenal, the Roman poet whose works date from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, believed that truffles originated from thunder and rain. The great Cicero declared truffles the “children of the earth,” presumably because they do not derive from seeds. By 1808, however, man had uncovered a method of cultivating truffles: Joseph Talon, from Apt in southern France, drawing upon the knowledge that truffles tended to grow amongst the roots of certain trees, entertained the idea of sowing acorns collected at the base of specific oak trees that had been known to host truffles. And his hunch was, apparently, a good one because years later the trees that grew from those collected acorns also served as hosts to truffles. The experiment was again repeated in 1847 when Auguste Rousseau of Vaucluse, located in southeastern France, planted 17 acres with acorns collected from the foot of truffle-hosting oaks. And the oaks that grew from those acorns also served as hosts to truffles—so much so that Rousseau received a prize at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris. The Talon-Rousseau approach to cultivating truffles was especially successful in southern France, where the sweet limestone soils and dry weather enable the growth of truffles. Then, in the late 19th century, when many of Europe’s vineyards were destroyed by the phylloxera epidemic, and the continent’s silkworms also succumbed to an epidemic, former vineyards and fields of mulberry trees (the food source of silkworms) were converted into “trufficulture” farms, and truffle production reached an all-time high. By the 20th century, however, with industrialization, many farmers abandoned their lives of agriculture for urban existences, leaving truffle fields to return to wilderness. Then, with the Great Wars, much of Europe’s male population died, leaving few hands available for trufficulture. And since the “fertile years” of the average truffle-hosting tree is 30 years, by the 1940s, most of the trees planted in the late 19th century had stopped being productive. Consequently, with the shortage of truffles and an increased demand for the delicacy, prices skyrocketed. Since the last decades of the 20th century, there have been efforts to mass produce truffles by planting truffle groves (truffiere) per the methods uncovered by Talon and Rousseau. There have also been marginally successful attempts to inoculate seedlings with truffle spores. Then once the saplings are established, they are transplanted into appropriate soil environments. Trees generally require at least seven years before the first truffles appear around their root systems. Once truffle production begins, however, a farmer can expect to collect truffles in the areas where they were previously collected for the next 15 to 30 years. In 1993, Gisborne, New Zealand earned the distinction of being the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to produce “black truffles.” But some long-time farmers resist such attempts for fear that increased production would result in lower prices. And part of the truffle’s mystique is its price. As was said by French lawyer and epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), “… as one of the great values of truffles is their dearness, perhaps they would be less highly esteemed if they were cheaper.” Also, there have been attempts to cultivate truffles on a commercial scale in other countries, but rarely do the climatic and geographical conditions favor such endeavors. So, for the moment, truffles remain elusive, expensive, and enticing.

[ Besides Italy, “white truffles” can also be found in Croatia and in the Drôme region of France. “Black truffles,” in addition to France, which accounts for approximately 45% or the world’s production, can also be found in Spain, Italy, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Australian states of Tasmania and Western Australia. There are also other—albeit less highly regarded—edible truffles that are found in other regions of the world: black “summer truffles” and “burgundy truffles,” members of the Tuber aestivum/uncinatum species, are found throughout Europe, the former harvested in the summer, and the latter in the in the fall; the “pecan truffle,” Tuber lyonii, which is found in the vicinity of pecan trees in the southern United States (For years, farmers would find them and discard them, considering them to be a nuisance. Based on 2013 pricing, however, they are being sold at approximately $100 per pound and are being served by gourmet restaurants in the United States); and the “Oregon white truffles,” Tuber oregonense and Tuber gibbosum. There are also other truffle-like species of underground mushrooms, the most culinarily notable being the “desert truffles” of Africa and the Middle East—“black kame” (Terfezia bouderi) and “brown kame” (Terfezia claveryi). And there is the “Bohemian truffle,” which is traditionally eaten in parts of Germany. Then, of course, there are the poisonous varieties, which are, at all costs, to be avoided by gentlemen. ]

Harvesting Truffles

If cultivating truffles is interesting, then harvesting them is exciting. Dogs and female pigs are used to sniff out and unearth truffles. Mature truffles produce a compound that, to a female pig, smells akin to androstenol, the sex pheromone found in boars’ saliva—a musk-like smell to which the sow

is acutely attracted. Unless pigs are nozzled, however, they tend to not only devour the precious truffles before the harvester can secure them, but also to damage the truffle-producing spores in the process. Consequently, in some countries such as Italy, the use of truffle pigs is discouraged or prohibited. Enter: man’s best friend, the dog. The Lagotto Romagnolo (“lake dog from Romagna”), a breed of dog from the Romagna sub-region of Italy that is traditionally used as a retriever, is the only dog officially recognized for its truffle-hunting capabilities. But any dog can be trained to hunt for truffles. And because trained dogs tend to be more obedient and less ravenous than pigs, dogs are generally more eager to relinquish their truffle-finds to their masters—especially if they know they will be rewarded with a substitute treat or some display of affection. It is also said that truffle flies gather at the base of host-trees that host truffles. And some farmers, as guided by the truffle flies (Suillia flies), which tend to lay their eggs on the ground directly above or in the vicinity of truffles, dig for the truffles themselves. (But since the best time to harvest a truffle is determined by its smell, animals that rely on sniffing out truffles are regarded as the best method for finding truffles at their optimum harvest time). Also, animals such as squirrels, chipmunks, and other rodents that eat truffles, will also burrow into the ground in search of them. (And when they find them, they bring them to the surface and devour them, thereby spreading the spores and helping to ensure the growth of the fungus). Farmers, therefore, look for evidence of burrowing as an indication of the presence of truffles. And since truffles tend to appear in spots where they appeared the year before, farmers are keen to discreetly mark those spots so as to find new truffles in the future. Once there is a clear indication that a truffle has been located, it is carefully unearthed using hand-tools such as a small hand-rake, a trowel, and a hand-broom—similar to the way an archaeologist on a dig removes precious artifacts from the soil. Once exposed, the truffle is carefully lifted from the ground. Typically, truffles are located a few inches below the surface-soil. And on rare occasions, they appear above-ground.

Contrary to popular belief, washing a truffle clean with water does not harm it—after all, they grow underground, exposed to the elements. The truffle is held by the hand under cool, running water, and gently, with a soft-bristled brush, scrubbed clean of soil. Once the soil has been removed, the truffle is pat-dried with paper towel and stored properly—if not used immediately. (See below).

Eating Truffles

The pungent aroma of a mature truffle is said to be reminiscent of musk mixed with nuts mixed with ozone. In layman’s terms, it smells somewhat earthy and nutty, but with overtones of onions and garlic. Its flavor is best described by its aroma, and vice versa; it tastes as it smells, and it smells like it tastes. Even a small white truffle possesses enough aroma to perfume an entire apartment—sometimes to the point where its inhabitants may be inclined to temporarily seek shelter elsewhere. And the more fragrant a truffle, the more flavorful. But, alas, the flavor and aroma of truffles are as fleeting as they are intense. It is best, therefore, to use them shortly after they are harvested. But in the cases where they must be transported to market, some experts store them in the refrigerator in a glass container filled with uncooked rice until they can be delivered. And in keeping with the truffle’s tendency to exist symbiotically, not only does the rice help preserve the truffle, it also absorbs some of aroma and flavor of the mushroom, which are then released when subsequently cooked. (Fresh eggs stored with truffles also absorb, through the shell, the aroma and flavor of truffles, thereby enhancing the eggs when cooked).

It was once the custom to peel truffles, but that practice has long been abandoned as wasteful and unnecessary. Every part of the delicacy should be enjoyed. So today, after being properly cleaned, truffles are sliced into paper-thin slices with specially designed truffle slicers. Every gentleman’s kitchen should be equipped with such a device—made of sterling silver or some other luxurious material, of course.

Traditionally, because of the intense—but fleeting—flavor and aroma of truffles, it is rarely subjected to cooking. Typically, it is ceremoniously brought to the table and sliced or grated directly onto the dish it is to enhance. But that it not always the case: Truffle slices are oftentimes placed under the skin of chicken prior to roasting, thereby imparting its unique flavor and aroma into the bird before and during the roasting process. And truffle slices are always inserted into the center of traditional pâté de foie gras. With most other foods, however, such as sauces, fish stocks, and creams; omelettes; risotto and pasta; soufflés; and chicken and veal, for example, the delicious mushroom is added at the end of the cooking process or shaved onto the cooked dish immediately before presentation.

Preserving Truffles

Truffles may be stored for a few days without losing all their flavor and aroma. Many chefs prefer to wrap the mushroom in dry paper towel, place the wrapped mushroom into an airtight container, then store in a refrigerator. Each day, the paper towel is replaced by a fresh, dry sheet Alternatively, truffles may be frozen in an air-tight glass container for approximately two weeks. They may also be preserved, whole, in a tasteless oil, which will take on the flavor of the truffle and can be used to enhance many dishes.