We at Flaunt love the pursuit of all things exotic and rare. We wear expensive suits, drive fancy cars, and go to bed with beautiful people whose taste is often more lavish than ours. This drive for the finer things is why we love the truffle, that most mysterious and elusive culinary oddity. The lumpy, golf ball-sized fungus mimics the tuber in its underground growth and presents a severe challenge for the casual mushroom picker. In fact, the truffle is uniquely sought out only by the most masterful hunter and his trusty Lagotto Romagnolo (a rare breed of Sicilian water dog) who scours the underbrush, its nose twitching for the pungent aroma that is the delicacy’s signature.
We met Rico, one of these Lagotto Romagnolo, and his pick-up driving owner Bill while hitching a return ride from a truffle orchard visit in the December-muddied, majestic hills of Napa Valley. We were here on assignment for the inaugural Napa Valley Truffle Festival, where a select collective of horticulture and culinary elites gathered on the soft earth for an edutainment symposium concerning the cultivation and growth of truffles, a procedure that often takes five years, and until only recently, was exercised exclusively by those two landmasses across the pond that stubbornly stake claims of supremacy to such processes: France and Italy.
But since the Judgment of Paris—a 1976 upset by California wines in each category at the Paris Wine Tasting—Napa Valley has felt the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better bug. Hence Rico’s rare habitation in the locale. “Hunting truffles,” says Bill, turning to us in our bucket seats, “with a dog like Rico can be dangerous. Sometimes the other hunters will steal your dog, and if you’re lucky, and all they want is the upper hand in their dog finding the truffles, he’ll show up on your doorstep at the end of the season.” Truffle hunting, and the trade that follows, due to prices that dip into the hundreds (and in some small cases thousands) of dollars for a single pop, is very serious business.
But our story is a little more screwball than that. You see, the authors of this article are lifestyle editors. The page you are currently scanning with your eyes was written, copyedited, proofed, and summarily overseen by us, as was each preceding page (bar some of the writing from other such intelligentsia), and the pages to follow. We could delve deeper into this process, but the long and short of it is this: it’s hard, time-consuming work. Plus, we’re on deadline right now. As we type. This is to say, we were also on deadline this previous weekend, when this brilliant trip took place. The rub is: our honorable Publisher never knew we absconded to Napa, and abscond we did (though we did work into the wee hours on Friday night, and have been working 12-hour days since, as a self-imposed penance). Trust us (and check our Twitter): we shared many a laugh in our absentia.
We strategically avoided text message inquiries to our progress from said Publisher with crafty quips like, “Just finished some major editorial, now taking a Napa” to cover our bases. We’re good like that. And besides, beyond learning a thing or two about truffles from the American Truffle Company, folks were here to devour them—and braininess demands nutrition. So there we were, arm in arm, discussing incubation lengths with Virginian truffle-farming hopefuls. Led by La Toque restaurant guru Ken Frank, five chefs with some 13 Michelin stars amongst them, rosy-cheeked and bearing fungal fragrances, presented their creations, then bowed to applause from an assortment of brainy scientists in from Vienna, twinkly-eyed locals in gowns and suits, the lovely Lexus ladies bunched at the table of honor, and most importantly, we lifestyle editors with a love for food and drink.
As conversation parlayed into future plans for truffle—and other members of the fungus family, a bit more, erm, intoxicating in nature—engagement, willed by Dr. Paul Thomas of the American Truffle Company, our own Dr. Haswell leaned into his truffle chestnut soup and declared, “The truffle with that is…” and proceeded to describe the thematically similar psychedelic freedom of this weekend’s artful hookey, which somehow made the lobster with its tomalley and coral, truffle, walnut; modern duck pot au feu in a black truffle nage; and Barolo vialone nano risotto with roasted beets, burgundy truffles, and zabouton beef taste ever the more divine.
Bellies now pouring out over our designer belts, we politely declined on plans for further discussions over brunch the next morning. We were just simply too tight on time. So we painted the town red until well after the meal in an effort to forget our responsibilities shelved down south, only to end up in the Westin’s courtyard with a pair of townies, a couple, who spoke without tenses, unfortunately, and woke to a reservation that would save our souls: Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.
Bouchon really needs no introduction. Nestled in the tiny town of Yountville, and filled with food-tourists and local wine-folk (we even happened upon a Yountville office party where the revelers dressed as Drunken Santas and Sexy Elves), the little sister of fabled cuisine destination, French Laundry, delivered the goods in six courses of gratification: succulent seasonal oysters (from Massachusetts and California) and lobster; a divine potato leak soup with chive frêche and fingerling chips; salade de champignons; an amazing cod brandade; and the chef’s nod to the Truffle Festival, a sautéed gnocchi with shaved truffles (the highlight of the meal); salmon; and diver scallops. Your charming narrators stuffed ourselves to the brim, and even managed mousse and ice cream.
Food coma be damned, we flagged down our driver, Khalid, and scooted back into Napa town, where our angelic Truffle Festival guide Holly invited us to a reading by her father—who turned out to be legendary counterculture humorist and publisher Paul Krassner—at her husband Dan’s knowledgably stocked wine shop Backroom Wines. “I’m an atheist,” Krassner mused, “but I like to talk to god, because I’m also an absurdist, and that’s the most absurd thing I can think of.” Your trusty editors looked at each other and felt this deeply.
Things warmly wound down, we slated a forthcoming column from the hilarious Mr. Krassner, and then tucked several bottles into a travel-safe carton for gifting upon return (once we dish this copy to our art department and our sojourn is made wider office knowledge, we’ll deliver our presents, come clean, and beg for forgiveness), and made our way over to The Carneros Inn, a conceptual “town”—homeowners, by-the-nightly lodge-renters, and time-share owners divide the amenities (one homeowner ordered a Thanksgiving dinner for 30 from room service this year)—and their delightfully modern restaurant The Farm.
How we continued to nosh is beyond us, but nosh we did, out by the warmth of the fire, in the company of Japanese tourists and Taiwanese swingers, wiping suckling pig from each other’s chin while praising the tongue-numbing brilliance of our companion to this little piggy—a Scribe pinot noir birthed just up the muddy road—before our ascent out of SFO and aerial plunge an hour later into this sunny snakepit we call home.