"The Emperor of the Fall", read the title on the antiqued menu.
The room was vast and empty, and the huge picture windows looked out on an autumnal landscape shrouded in dense Piedmont fog. But that didn't spoil the event, because all the action was inside - and though highly sensory, it wasn't a visual experience at all.
It was the rich, intoxicating smell of "the Emperor" that reigned all around us: the musty, earthy fragrance of a dozen little, lumpy, potato-looking things: white truffles.
The trifolau, or truffle hunter, had brought them to the restaurant for the owner to take his pick, and was now walking around the tables chatting to people, while his white truffles made the rounds in a small basket. He spoke to us about his land, the rich Langhe hills of Piedmont, where the soil produces the famous Nebbiolo wine grapes above ground, and the prized white truffles below. He told us how a neighbor had introduced him to the secrets of truffle hunting when he was a boy.
Grown in darkness under the earth, and sought out during the night by a solitary man and his highly-trained dog, the white truffle becomes the essence of conviviality at the table: always consumed in a group, each diner grates thin slivers of the truffle over his or her food – linguine in butter, fried eggs with fondue,carpaccio. The aroma of the truffle floats up over the table in an invisible cloud.
And then the truffle is passed to the next lucky person, and the ritual begins again.