It is a showery October morning, on a beautiful Umbrian hillside. Carefully sidestepping a scratchy wild juniper bush, Molly – an amiable, slightly chubby young labrador – lumbers towards her two wirier, scruffier comrades as they scrabble around the roots of an oak tree. Rocco and Vespa eventually emerge, the former with a decent-sized black autumn truffle in his jaws. He allows his owner to prise it from him, and is rewarded with a treat: Molly sidles up for her reward, too, but is rebuffed.
She is a philosophical dog, however, and as the family pet of Carlo Caporicci, the truffle dealer, she has little to worry about. Truffle dogs often go without dinner, to heighten their appetites for the following morning’s foray, but not Molly; in any case, she specialises in tuber magnatum pico, the far more valuable white truffle.
Caporicci deals in truffles of all kinds and has even planted a truffle orchard on his own land (“my pension plan”, as he describes it) to grow tuber melanosporum, the winter black truffle. A sizeable chunk of his business is supplying Europe’s best restaurants with truffles: in London, L’Anima, Apsleys and Locanda Locatelli are regular customers, and his address book fairly twinkles with Michelin stars.
One of those stars is held by Marco Torri, chef/proprietor of Semplice in Mayfair; by the time I dropped in for lunch a few weeks later, I am happy to say, Molly and friends had already sniffed out a few “white diamonds”. Unusually among London restaurants, Semplice allows diners to choose exactly how much truffle they want, weighed at the table; after all, the most pungent gram of truffle is definitely the first one.
Torri’s cooking is sublime. As his restaurant’s name suggests, simplicity is the watchword: not tempted into outré creations at the expense of classic northern Italian cooking, he relies instead on superb, artisanal produce. He has a playful touch, though, employing both sorts of (botanically unrelated) artichoke in one dish, for example: a smooth purée of the globular kind surrounding translucent wafers of the jerusalem variety, over a perfect, tiny dice of autumn truffle.
Gnocchi were ethereally light and soft, made with a minimum of flour and a maximum of yellow, floury potatoes, then bathed in a silk-smooth sauce of stracchino cheese and showered with flakes of white truffle. Risotto was equally indulgent – truffle of any kind loves butter, cream and cheese – and had a perfect “bite”. There is no better place I know than the stylish, ebony-and-gold dining room at Semplice to revel in Umbria’s subterranean diamonds.
By the time you read this, the black winter truffle season will be upon us – and upon Torri’s menu. Truffle, to me, is one of the few truly aphrodisiac foods, something to bear in mind when planning your Valentine’s Day dinner.