Hollywood is much closer to Alba – the world’s truffle capital in Piedmont, Italy – than a traditional map would suggest. The connection may not be geographical, but sentimental (and financial): Bruce Willis is willing to spend a small fortune in Tuber magnatum Pico, the scientific name for white truffles, along with perfect regional wines to accompany the precious tuber like Barolo and Barbaresco.
Michael Douglas just bought a significant about of white truffle on a recent trip to Italy, which begs the question: are they for him, or for his wife, Catherine Zeta Jones who has confessed to using a special shampoo made of caviar and – yes, you guessed it, white truffle.
Extravagances aside, white truffle is the perfect delicacy for refined palates. As one of the world’s rarest and costliest foods, truffles are impossible to cultivate and are available for only a couple of months a year. While many truffle fans today may boast celebrity status, much of the truffle’s fame is thanks to the annual International Truffle Fair – which is currently underway in Alba – which took the initiative of sending a precious truffle to Rita Hayworth in 1949.
Since then, the largest exemplary found in the Piedmont hills of Northern Italy is sent to a bona fide cinema star. Recipients include Sofia Loren, the director Francis Ford Coppola, Marilyn Monroe – whose husband at the time, Joe Di Maggio, wanted to buy an Italian “truffle hound” for $150 – and one of cinema’s famed epicureans Gerard Depardieu (who employs his own, trusted “trifolau” or “truffle hunter”, Steven Casetta). Recent honorees are Penelope Cruz (2011) and this year’s Claudia Cardinale, who played the unforgettable Angelica in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 masterpiece, The Leopard.
The connection between Cinema & Truffles is explored with an exhibition in Alba centered around quotes, trivia and plot twists in dozens of films: from the stuffed pheasant that Hugh Grant uses to seduce Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (what a pity her character was vegetarian), to the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, who wrote a screenplay, set in Le Langhe, called The Mystery of the Truffle Hunter during a visit to Alba in 1959. The movie was never produced, but anyone curious about the film’s plot – which begins with the murder of an old truffle hunter – can read about it (provided you speak Italian) in the book Il Re del Tartufo, by Giordano Berti and Raoul Montanari.
And since white truffles can arouse so much passion, it’s only right to include a recipe—one that represents this year’s Fair, and one that’s easy enough for even truffle amateurs to pull off with flair. It’s been provided by Michelin-starred chef Enrico Crippa of the restaurant Piazza Duomo in Alba: take a small glass of mashed potato, and add a quail egg and a few shavings of white truffle. Yes, it’s a luxurious little dish, but this year it’s not quite as expensive as in the past: the current cost of truffles is between 3 and 4 dollars per gram.