I’m a big fan of food festivals. I love the concept of focusing obsessive attention on a particular food. (Well, yes. I admit I do that most days anyway. But during a festival there’s a strong chance that I won’t be the only ingredient fanatic in the tent. Such a reassuring feeling.)
Food festivals are a worldwide phenomenon. You could tour the globe, going from one to another. The one in Spain in August, which features a gigantic food fight with thousands of pounds of tomatoes, is particularly intriguing. And the street food festival in Kuala Lumpur, with 2,500 vendors to choose from. (Kind of like Food Truck Friday on steroids.) There are other festivals focused on everything from barbecue to oysters to pickles to hot dogs — I’m getting hungry just Googling them. But I wish there were more festivals close to home. It would be nice to have a more varied diet without having to leave town.
The great thing about festivals is that they are usually rooted in local agriculture and traditions. But that means that in Napa, where the land is covered with grapes as far as the eye can see, we are fairly limited in authentic festival opportunities — though of course the whole valley is pretty much an ongoing wine celebration. We do also have olives, which a lot of wineries are getting pretty heavily into these days, so we may yet take back the olive festival that Copia started and Sonoma stole from us without an apology or so much as a backward glance. (Not that I’m mad about it or anything.)
And we make do pretty well in the off-season, with wine-pairing dinners and a host of crab feeds to help us get by. But in general, after crush, it’s a long, festival-less winter here until February/March, when the fields bloom yellow and the Mustard Festival comes along to usher us into spring.
There’s a lot of gray, wet days between now and February. So I’m delighted to report that to help us banish the dreariness of December, there’s a surprising new festival in town this weekend.
Though at first glance it seems to be taking place not just in the wrong country, but on the wrong continent.
It celebrates truffles.
No, not the kind that are made out of chocolate. (Great idea though. Let me know if you find one.) This festival focuses on the fungus that grows underground in an oak forest and is sniffed out by pigs and dogs.
In France and Italy.
And Carneros, it turns out.
Yes, while I’ve been sitting here moaning that Napa Valley has turned into a monoculture, with nothing but grapes growing in every conceivable corner, it turns out there has been an underground (literally) movement afoot to diversify. The next time you see a field laid out with neatly staked plants, take a second look. That acreage might actually be covered in oak saplings, carefully inoculated with Tuber melanosporum.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards has already put in a truffle orchard in Carneros, and other vintners are sure to follow. Apparently, the practice of replacing unproductive vineyards with truffle-infected oak trees has been going on for some time in France, where 90 percent of the truffles sold today are cultivated rather than wild. (Poof. There goes my fantasy image of a lone woodsman and his pig happening upon a pungent lump as they wander through the forest.)
Recently, some clever scientists have finally figured out what it takes to make the mysterious fungus sprout in other parts of the world. It’s already growing successfully in the Pacific Northwest and now in the Bay Area. With Napa’s track record of one-upping the French at their own game, truffles could soon be our valley’s newest (and most lucrative) luxury crop.
Truffles are well worth celebrating. In my opinion (as well as in the eyes of the ancient Romans and pretty much anyone else who has ever tasted one), they are among the most addictively delicious foods on earth. They’re also among the most expensive, fetching northwards of $1,000 a pound. (I suppose I should warn you that the price of the festival and its accompanying dinners is equally stratospheric. There is a quite reasonable $15 marketplace event on Saturday, though, which I imagine will feature a number of must-have pantry items.)
Despite the potential strain on my wallet, I’m excited by the festival and by this new local crop. I’m looking forward to attending some of the events and learning more about truffle cultivation. I wish I could grow my own. (Alas, I’ve already read enough to figure out that the giant valley oak in my backyard is the wrong variety, and unlikely to spontaneously deliver a truffle even once I get the squirrels trained to hunt for them instead of my tulips.)
This festival and those saplings in Carneros could be the start of something big. With our stellar wines and brilliant chefs, Napa is already a major luxury food destination. A shaving of local truffles on top will only add to the delicious draw.
And once we get them established, I have another great idea. Do you suppose sturgeon can thrive in the Napa River?
We could really use a caviar festival, too.
Fettuccine and Mushrooms with Brandy Cream Sauce
When I checked my cupboards, I discovered that my supply of truffles and caviar was depleted (or, rather, nonexistent — it’s hard to use up what you never had in the first place). But I did find the sad remnants of some dried porcini mushrooms, another, more affordable, luxury. Since they were already broken to bits, I threw them into the spice grinder and turned them into porcini powder, one of my secret ingredients. (Oops, I guess the secret is out.) A teaspoonful of porcini powder added to ordinary mushrooms gives a delicious layer of dusky, wild mushroom flavor.
I used it to add a little dazzle to this simple pasta dish, inspired by my friend Leigh. If you don’t have porcini powder, though, it’s great without it. And if you happen to have a truffle around, feel free to add some shavings on top (and invite me to dinner).
1 Tbsp. butter
1-2 cups sliced mushrooms (about 6 mushrooms per serving)
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. porcini powder (optional)
1/4 cup cognac or brandy
1/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
4-6 ounces fettuccine
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley for garnish, optional
Put the pasta water on to boil. When it is boiling, add the pasta then immediately start the sauce, so that the two are ready at the same time. (If you are nervous about the timing, cook the sauce before you start the fettuccine so it is ready to go onto the pasta as soon as it is done.)
In a medium-size sauté pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook quickly, tossing or stirring the mushrooms. After about 30 seconds, add the garlic, shallots, porcini powder and a pinch or two of salt and continue cooking. When the mushrooms have softened and cooked, add the brandy to the pan. Boil it down to about half the amount (this will happen fairly quickly). Add the cream and stir, bringing it to a boil. Cook for about 30 seconds or until it starts to thicken, then remove it from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
By now, the pasta should be al dente Add it to the pan with the sauce and stir quickly to coat. If the sauce seems too thick, add a spoonful of the pasta cooking water.
Divide onto two plates and serve, sprinkled with chopped parsley (or shaved truffles).
Betty Teller is glad that cats, unlike pigs, are utterly uninterested in truffles, so she won’t have to share the goodies she buys at the festival. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: For more information about the upcoming Napa Truffle Festival, which takes place Dec. 10-12, visit napatrufflefestival.com.