by Isabella Dusi
Using a toothbrush, Maria Pia whisks dirt from a pungent tuber which was rooted from damp earth by a hunter and his dog in a dawn raid. I witnessed this extraordinary find by rising early and accompanying my friend on this expedition even before the veil of darkness had lifted. Silently we watched the dissolving blackness silhouette oaks, poplars and chestnuts; the black night turned watery grey as the hunter and dog scratched and poked beneath the roots of trees. The hunter roughly pulled the dog away and then gently extracted an ugly tuber. Each hunter guards his territory and never uses the same path; he knows under which tree he will unearth a truffle because this ugly tuber grows beneath the roots of the same tree every season. By the time the first rays of morning sun pierced the canopy of trees, creeping across the forest floor, the prize was in his pocket, and our dawn hunt was over.
Signora Maria Pia, an outrageously colourful woman, is as completely at home in the forest as she is in the kitchen of Taverna Grappolo Blu in the Tuscan village of Montalcino. Effortlessly she shaves flakes of precious truffle onto hand rolled pasta tossed in nothing but extra virgin olive oil. This oil we collected from the mill yesterday, having first picked the olives and then, emptying baskets of black beads we watched them fall under huge rotating wheels of stone until murky green liquid streamed out, to be captured in this bottle.
Maria Pia pummels a pastry base into a tart tin. She traps the pips between her floury knuckles as lemon juice dribbles through her fingers into a bowl. She is making a Lemon Cream and Pine Nut tart. The pine nuts drop from the trees into the grass where the children play and were gathered by Maria Pia and other chatting village women, straight into their aprons. With a tiny hammer I helped the women crack the nuts out of their shells while we sat along the wall watching the children.
In Tuscany, the pleasure of gathering nature’s goodness from the earth thrives and so do the hidden tracks of the secretive truffle hunters. Not just because Italians love to source and grow their own food, but because of agricultural pride and laws which preserve forest and farm land. Most of the food an Italian eats is found near to where it is consumed – very near – and with little or no processing.
Maria Pia epitomises the simplicity of the Tuscan lifestyle and the respect a Tuscan has for the earth. She brings me into intimate contact with food. With her I’ve hunted truffles, gathered eggs from clucking chickens, picked lemons and let wood smoke waft into my hair. I’ve bumped along on a tractor carrying baskets of olives, smelled freshly tilled earth, had dirt under my fingernails and the farmer’s grainy hand in mine. Maria Pia describes it as looking after my benessere – capturing a lifestyle of well being. I have a personal attachment to this sublime truffle because I watched the snuffling dog press his nose to the ground, pawing at the earth. Maria Pia’s Lemon Cream and Pine Nut Tart is delicious confirmation that the colours, smells and tastes of Tuscany never fail to keep their promise. Being intimately connected to food at its source is one of the secrets of the Tuscan lifestyle.