Gaia Gaja Gets Double Paws

Last night I was fortunate to have dinner with Gaia Gaja (pronounced ‘Guy-ah Guy-ah’), whose fresh-faced charisma and alliteratively alluring name is rivaled only by the recently wedded Lauren Bush Lauren.  Gaia is the elder daughter of Angelo Gaja, the Piedmont-based godfather of legendary Barolo and Barbaresco.  The wines we enjoyed, including the 2009 Gaja Barbarbeco and 2008 Gaja DaGromis Barolo, were as floral, licorice-infused, and persistent as one would expect from Italy’s most renowned producer.

Gaia Gaja

Having a real-life Piedmontese gastronaut in my midst, however, I was equally curious about her knowledge of truffle hunting in her native area.  (With my annual BYOT(ruffle) tradition, one can never been overeducated in the mysterious ways of the blessed tartufo bianco). Gaia Gaja did not disappoint, providing these fascinating nuggets:

  • There is no specific type of dog bred for truffle hunting, although smaller dogs with short hair are favored for their ability to move easily through forest underbrush.
  • To determine which puppy of a litter has a special penchant for truffles, each is given its chow with a few flecks of real truffle.  The puppy that responds most positively to the truffle is singled out for training.
  • The dog will eventually be trained by letting it home in on a truffle wrapped in a napkin and then be rewarded with a dog biscuit.  The napkin gets the dog used to the fact that he shouldn’t chomp into the truffle but instead wait for the biscuit.
  • A truffle hunter and his canine companion often have an unusually close relationship, whereby the dog is allowed to sleep in the hunter’s bed, is fed eggs in the morning, and is cajoled and praised like a human.  Said Gaia with feigned exasperation: “The dog is often treated better than the wife”.
  • Although scrambled eggs or simple pasta dishes are the classic vehicles for shaved truffles, Gaia encountered her favorite all-time truffle dish at a restaurant in her local town of Barbaresco.  It consisted of the swoon-worthy concoction of truffles shaved over a raw egg yolk surrounded by polenta that had been infused with pureed chestnuts and grated parmigiano reggiano.
  • Some truffle dogs are trained to differentiate between black truffles and the more valuable white truffles.  Upon sensing his tartufo target, the pooch will signal his master by stomping one paw for black, two for white.

Have Coinstar, Will Truffle

Truffle Shuffle: Setting out for the Coinstar machine at the Food Emporium in New York’s Union Square, I had gotten about halfway down 15th Street when the sound of spewing metal prompted me to look back and notice the trail of change snaking out of my roller bag and onto the rainy pavement.

“Oh [expletive]!”  I fell to my hands and knees and tried in vain to scoop up the four years of worth of pocket change now ascatter on the asphalt.  In the street dodging nighttime traffic, my fingers painted with the ashy, urea-rich brand of filth peculiar to New York streets, I felt as defeated as the Santa-suited Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places What have I been reduced to?! I picked myself up and walked off with my depleted bag, disgusted and dejected, leaving this trail of legal tender in the street for the numismatically needy.

That was five years ago.  Having accumulated a new stockpile of spare change, last month I set out on another Coinstar crusade, this time with roller bag fully zipped.  And on this mission I found success, leaving the Food Emporium with $139.83 in cold cash.

What to do with these spoils?  The incurable gastronaut in me could contemplate only one option: invest in one white truffle, the rare, uncultivable fungus that rolls off the Italian tongue mellifluously as tartufo bianco.

With late autumn being the heart of truffle season, I had recently read good things about a specialty store in the East Village called Trufette (also known by its wholesaler title, S.O.S. Chefs).  So off I went to this sliver of a shop, its barely-marked exterior leading to the kind of offbeat boutique your aunt would own – if your aunt were French-Moroccan and lined her shelves with mysteries like argan oil, pimprenelle powder, and geggenbauer vinegar.  I knew I was getting closer to the mark when I spied a blackboard listing fresh mushrooms that were equally Martian-sounding: yellowfoots, ovaly, mousseron, honshimeji.  In back things were lab-like, with metal tables and scales and two workers focused intensely on sorting through these precious specimens.  Then the owner emerged, a pixie clothed like a cat burglar, a black snowcap stretched over her head like a freedom fighter on the mycophilic trail.

“I’d like to buy a truffle,” I informed her, dizzy with a bit of the consumptive pride experienced by purchasers of big cars and small islands.

“Wait here,” she responded, a foreign accent drifting over solemn lips.

Disappearing into the back room, she soon reemerged cradling a plastic container like it was a kitten box.  When the cover came off, there they were: nine knobby balls of pungent gastronomic gold.  Wa-wa-wee-wa!

As she fished one out, I asked whether I could take a picture of this wondrous sight.

“No, no, no…no photos, no photos,” this culinary Che Guevara said with a swagger and finality that one dared not challenge.  (At least to her face: when she wasn’t looking, I snapped a few photos anyway).

She wrapped my truffle in purple tissue paper and placed it in a plastic container, poking a hole in the lid so it “could breathe”.  Surrendering all of my Coinstar winnings and adding a ten-spot, I finally took possession of the contraband and headed for the door.  Was that the chorus of “Smugglers Blues” echoing in the distance?

The question remained: how could I extract as much pleasure as possible from my ounce of Piedmontese perfection?  Lacking chef skills, I resolved to do it the easy way by improvising the concept of “B.Y.O.T.” (Bring Your Own Truffle) to a local eatery.  I figured that smuggling it into any place that actually might serve truffles could earn me a scarlet letter in the restaurant world, so I chose Pizza Gruppo, an East Village dive that serves ethereal brick-oven pizza and levies only a $10 corkage fee on diners who bring along their own wine.

Gruppo never knew what hit ’em.  With friends running interference, I sneaked in a duffle bag that contained the truffle, a truffle grater (resembling a miniature cheese grater with a metal handle), and two bottles of Barolo, which, like white truffles, derives from Italy’s Piedmont region and is often said to resonate with hints of truffles itself.

We ordered the blandest pizza possible and then took turns grating excessive amounts of the truffle on our slices, giddy like school kids chugging chocolate syrup when Mom isn’t looking.  The truffle had an inimitably earthy funk – a musky quality that evoked sautéed garlic, fried walnuts, even decayed leaves.  Lubricated with hearty hits of Barolo, it approached what a poet once described as a truffle’s ability to provide “a foretaste of paradise”.  And for only about two thousand pieces of pocket change, this was paradise at a deep discount.

bring your own truffle truffle truffles


baroloProducer: Paolo Scavino
Wine: Barolo Bric dël Fiasc
Vintage: 1998
Cost: $90

If you’re going to B.Y.O.B. while you B.Y.O.T., this is the bottle to do it with.  A wonderful core of ultra-ripe blackberries is joined by notes of leather, tar, licorice, and perhaps some truffle.  Full-bodied with just a trace of tannin in its otherwise smooth, enduring finish, it has the stuff to get even better over the next several years.