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A taste of truffles

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Just looking at a truffle, one would not suspect the firm, round, coarse, lumpy nugget would produce such devoted followers and prices in the thousands for mere ounces. During a special dinner at the Country Club of Landfall Thursday, Jan. 15, the black truffle was the center of attention as guest Italian chef and hotelier Carlo Zarri treated diners to more than 1 pound of truffles from his Cortemilia, Italy, hometown.

Since 2009, Zarri has embarked on tours around the East and West coasts of the United States to host truffle and hazelnut dinners at restaurants and clubs. In 2014, Zarri hosted a dinner at the Marion Cricket Club in Philadelphia, the club where Landfall executive chef Olivier Andreini was previously employed. One of Andreini’s former sous chefs in Philadelphia put Andreini in contact with Zarri for this year’s tour.

“[Zarri] usually visits large cities on his tours, so it is really cool to have him here,” Andreini said just before dinner service Thursday.

Zarri’s family history is intertwined with the truffles and hazelnuts that grow in and around Cortemilia, as well as the traditional cuisine of the Italian piedmont.

“We know that my great grandfather had an osteria there back in the 1800s but it could have gone further back,” Zarri said. “We grew up with [truffles], like the hazelnuts. I was born in the restaurant.”

Cortemilia is in the Langhe province of the Italian piedmont, which is one of the few areas in the world where truffles grow. The others are the Italian regions of Umbria and Toscana, as well as Croatia, South Africa and Oregon. Like mushrooms, truffles are fungi that grow underground but only around certain types of trees and soils.

For Zarri, the knowledge of where to locate truffles around his family’s home has passed down from generation to generation in the form of records kept detailing when and where truffles were found.

“The truffle is truly a secret of nature because we don’t know exactly why it grows in that place or another,” he said. “We are lucky that it comes in our region and there are only a few other regions in the world that have truffles, but they are not as good as ours.”

Either dogs or pigs are usually used to help sniff out the truffles and Zarri said mutts are usually the best truffle dogs.

“Mutts are the best and they must be small so you can manage them,” he said. “The dogs smell the ground and find only the mature truffles. The truffle could be there, but if it is not mature they would not smell it.”

Zarri decided to take his truffles on the road throughout the United States after serving as the head chef for the Italian house in the Olympic Village for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. While there, another Italian chef who owns a restaurant in Portland, Ore., asked Zarri to visit his restaurant to host a truffle dinner and the idea grew from there. In 2014 Zarri visited 19 different restaurants and clubs with 11 scheduled for 2015.

Landfall was the second stop on his tour this year and Zarri said he just enjoys sharing his culture, truffles and hazelnuts with new people.

“It is exciting because the people that come to these kinds of events have maybe heard about the truffle and they have seen truffles on TV but maybe it is difficult to find truffles here so they are really willing to experience it,” he said. “This is authentic, typical style Italian cooking of [the Piedmont], and that is the best way to prepare the truffles.”

At each stop, Zarri prepares different dishes to showcase the truffles and hazelnuts he brings from Italy. The complexity of the dishes is based on how well Zarri knows the staff and equipment at each restaurant or club and, with it being his first time in Wilmington, Zarri said the dishes served Thursday evening were easier.

“Next time we can even go a little more challenging,” he said.

The five courses served to the 88 guests at Landfall included king prawn tails fried in hazelnut tempura, rustic tomato soup with truffle shavings, risotto Carnaroli with truffle shavings, twice-cooked beef tenderloin with Barolo wine sauce and a traditional dolce latté pudding with hazelnut.

Zarri said each dish featuring truffles was constructed to ensure the truffle was “the king of the plate,” as far as taste.

After all the plates were cleared, Zarri and Andreini emerged from the kitchen to a standing ovation from the patrons. Zarri said he always hopes his dinners inspire diners to take an interest in truffles and visit his region of Italy.

“The people are coming to taste my kitchen so it is exciting and I feel like a singer or an actor … while promoting my traditions and region,” he said. “People take away a unique experience hopefully with the wish to go in the region and experience it there.”

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