The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Taking the Road Less Traveled to the Museo del Tartufo

Posted on | November 21, 2011 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

I am a terrible tourist. Not one for planning outings, reading guides, following maps or making clear plans, I tend to find myself at interesting places, as I did when I was in Rome last March—or not, as I didn’t when I was in Rome this past month. The upshot being that while I’ve spent five months in Italy over the course of the past year, I’ve only been to three museums. The first being the Museo Storico Navale in Venice; the second being MACRO, Rome’s museum of contemporary art; and the third being the Museo del Tartufo in San Giovanni d’Asso this past weekend.

Do not confuse this Museo del Tartufo with the one in Lombardia. They may have the same name, but there are also multiple Museums of Natural History or Museum of Corn in the United States. This Museo del Tartufo sits in the tiny medieval town of San Giovanni d’Asso, which is also home to Il Bosco della Ragnaia, a sculpture park designed by American Shepherd Craige in the ‘80s, a place of deep magic green punctuated by word poems where smoking is really very forbidden. I also visited Il Bosco della Ragnaia, shortly after I visited the Museum of Truffles, and shortly before I visited Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a medieval monastery that’s home to a frieze of the life of St. Bernard.

This weekend was the white truffle market in San Giovanni d’Asso, which seemed to be an excuse for the storekeepers of the town to stay open during lunchtime and insert truffles into whatever it was they were selling. My guide on Saturday, Laura Gray, the Estate Manager of Il Palazzone and mother of three assertively redheaded bairn, and I shared an aranci. Not solely the Italian name for “orange,” and aranci is also a giant ball of fried rice that was on last Saturday stuffed with gooey cheesy truffle goodness. So devoted to truffles is San Giovanni d’Asso that they not only have a museum to the fungi in question; they also have painted their town wall with a series of truffle scenes, including this Keith Haring-esque depiction of a radiant baby finding a truffle.

The Museo del Tartufo has a nicely interactive design with lots of audio, visual, olfactory and tactile representations of the truffle. I have now heard what the truffle hears, smelled what the truffle smells, and felt what a truffle feels like. The museum’s pièce de résistance is a crystal showcase of three simply enormous white truffles, each twirling on a mirrored pedestal. I’d never envisioned a mushroom elevated to the dais of art, but now I can say that I have more than visualized it: I have seen it.

I don’t mean to portray myself here as some kind of rube, a person who discounts the traditionally reified world of classic art. I enjoy art. I’ve lived in New York City for over twenty years, and I go to museums every couple of months. But there’s a lot to be gained by seeing what inhabitants understand as real, important and vital. Anyone with a basic college education or the autodidact equivalent can tell you why Michelangelo’s David is important; not everyone can tell you why a truffle is. When you’re talking about a hardscrabble town populated with men whose noses seem to have leapt off a Caravaggio canvas, a town that sits in the shadows of its more famous neighbors of Siena and even Montalcino, a place where a sprawling (if non-smoking pixie inspired) sculpture garden abuts its walls because it was just that cheap to buy land in the mid-1980s, you can begin to understand the emotional impact of a toddler-fist-sized tuber that’s nearly worth its weight in gold.

It might just be something most of us shave over our pasta to our autumnal glee, but to someone else, that truffle gives heat, food, light and life. It’s a source of community pride, fierce bragging rights, and self-respect. It’s a lot for one small fungi to bear. Fortunately, it has a museum. Or two.



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