As it’s the truffle season I am posting a story I wrote about that magical ingredient set in Rome. It is inspired by one of my favourite short stories called Roman Fever by Edith Wharton. Enjoy the season!
Ruth stands on the corner of Via Margutta. It has never occurred to her how difficult it is to look innocent while standing alone on a street corner. Not that anyone would suspect Ruth of anything untoward: she wears a uniform typical of the well to do middle-aged woman. Tailored navy chinos, loafers, a Chanel jacket and Hermès scarf, her expertly bobbed brown hair dyed that morning to retain an air of youth.
Anyone walking past her would assume she was waiting for a friend, or perhaps just admiring the view up the narrow street where Pablo Picasso once lived. A car drives slowly past her, its tyres making a clicking sound over the cobbles that will always remind her of Rome.
“Root,” she hears a vespa pull up and a voice behind her. She turns to greet Mario, the curly-haired a farmer who lives close to their country house in Umbria. Even after all these years he finds her name impossible to pronounce. “Sorry I’m late.”
Ruth smiles. “You’re not by Roman standards. Have you got it?”
“Yes,” he says and guides her towards a closed shop front so they’re less exposed to the passers-by. “You will be so happy.”
Mario opens a battered leather briefcase and carefully brings out a glass jar.
“I thought you said there was one big one?” says Ruth peering at the jar.
“No, cara,” Mario tuts. “This is much better. Six small ones, one for each guest and a little bit for the pot. The flavour is much more concentrated, stronger, more powerful.”
He hands her the jar, holding it with both hands, not letting go until she has done the same.
“Be careful, Root,” he tells her.
“I will,” she nods. “Of course I will.”
Mario looks at her. “I don’t mean about dropping them, you are not a clumsy woman. I mean about the effect of truffles.”
Ruth carefully places the jar in her Tote bag.
“What do you mean?”
“After a dinner of truffles the truth always comes out,” he smiles. “You can’t avoid it. That’s the trouble with truffles.”
“What do you mean the truth?”
“La verità vera,” he whispers, leaning towards her, his eyes widening.
Ruth laughs. “The real truth? Is there another kind of truth?”
Mario shrugs his shoulders. “Buon appetito cara.”
Ruth has invited one of her oldest friends, Anna, and her 14-year-old daughter Grace to dinner. She has also managed to secure Henri, a recently divorced and rather glamorous French aristocrat. It really is too sad that Anna has never found anyone after Grace’s father upped and left her when she was pregnant. No one knows what happened or where he is. Ruth only met him twice, he seemed perfectly nice, but it’s almost as if he never existed, he is never mentioned.
She has been so very lucky with Luke. They have been married for 20 years and have a daughter called Olivia. Olivia and Grace are almost exactly the same age and best friends. It is fortuitous they all ended up in Rome together. Ruth and Luke moved here when he was with the foreign office. Anna was offered a job as an English teacher at the British school at almost the same time. Luke has since moved into the private sector. They can’t imagine ever leaving Rome.
Ruth walks up the steps to her home in the Villa Borghese. There are pots of geraniums on either side, and bougainvillea hanging from a trellis above. The birds are singing, elated at the arrival of spring. Is there anywhere more beautiful to live in the world? Especially on a day like this when the air is so sweet you can almost taste it.
Luke is in the kitchen with Leda, their housekeeper, who is making fresh tagliolini.
“Hello darling,” he kisses Ruth. “Did you get them?”
“Yes,” says Ruth. “I felt like I was meeting a drug dealer!”
Luke laughs. “Until 1945 all the truffles in Italy belonged to the Vatican, so I guess some of the subterfuge remains.”
“Leda,” asks Ruth turning towards the woman working a large wooden rolling pin over the dough. “Will the tagliolini be delicate enough?”
Leda looks up briefly. “Of course, signora, what do you think?”
“And you won’t overcook it?”
Leda sighs. “Two to three minutes maximum.”
“What about the sauce?”
“I will melt some butter with olive oil to cover the pasta with.”
“And the truffles?”
“Let me see them,” says Leda, wiping the flour off her hands and approaching Ruth who takes the jar out of her bag. Leda opens it and immediately a strong, musty, almost peppery aroma is released into the room.
She puts her nose close to the rim of the jar and inhales deeply, before closing the lid quickly.
“We mustn’t let too much of the flavour out. They are small, so we need to be very careful. We should clean them with a soft toothbrush and not let any water get on them but wipe them with kitchen paper to get any remaining earth off. When everyone is seated, and the pasta is in the pan, I will infuse the melted butter and olive oil with some truffle shavings. The rest everyone should shave onto their own pasta, like you would grate parmesan. It will be magnificent.”
“I hope the girls don’t guzzle it,” says Ruth. “They need to understand what a treat this is.”
Luke smiles. “Let them enjoy their first truffle experience without too many rules, darling.”
Ruth dresses with care. Not that she wants to impress the recently single aristocrat, but there is always a hint of competition between Anna and her, a hangover from when they were at Oxford together. They are similar in looks, and of course age. Anna has longer, thicker hair than Ruth, and was always the more voluptuous one. But Ruth has the prettier face, or at least she thinks she does.
She opts for a white chiffon blouse that is just see-through enough to be sexy rather than vulgar, and black trousers. She has more money than Anna, which gives her the advantage when it comes to dressing. She sits at her dressing table, putting the finishing touches on her make-up. Luke walks in from the shower. She watches him in the mirror. He is still in fine shape. He plays tennis every day at the exclusive Aniene club and doesn’t eat or drink too much. His hair is greying but not in an unattractive way. He is getting better with age. Ruth looks at herself. And how about her? She is thinner than she ever was due to her running addiction. Too thin, Luke sometimes says. But Ruth doesn’t believe a woman can be too thin. Her green eyes are still wide and clear, although the wrinkles are becoming increasingly pronounced. Her features were always quite delicate. In an ungenerous mood one might call them pinched.
Ruth gently pulls her eyelids up with her index fingers. It might be time to have some more serious work done. But without telling Luke of course. She smiles as she remembers Mario’s warning. No, she won’t be mentioning her plastic surgeon just off Piazza del Popolo, where she has regular Botox and fillers. Luke would hate that. He likes her to age gracefully. Which she intends to do, just not as rapidly as nature dictates.
The aristocrat is the last to arrive. He is thin and tall with dark, shiny hair that matches his perfectly polished black shoes. He does that French thing of hand kissing and missing, which Ruth finds somewhere between charming and utterly pointless.
“Welcome to our small gathering,” says Ruth. “I believe you know my husband Luke? Let me introduce you to my great friend Anna Atkinson, who is the head of English at the British school here in Rome.”
“Enchanté Madame,” says Henri, bending over to perform the kissing and missing ritual on Anna’s outstretched hand. Anna is wearing a navy blue wraparound dress Ruth has seen several times that accentuates her curves.
She passes around more drinks. Leda has made champagne cocktails. Ruth has already had two and can almost feel the alcohol and sugar travelling through her veins. It’s not an unpleasant feeling. She starts to relax.
There is a loud giggle from the door and the two girls walk in, their arms wrapped around each other.
“Ah, les filles,” says Henri. “Like a breath of fresh air. They could almost be twins. Adorable.”
“Girls, come and meet Henri de Viennet,” commands Ruth.
“You’re very tall,” says Olivia, which makes Grace collapse in hysterics.
“A tavola,” says Luke, clapping his hands above his head. “We have a special treat in store.”
The party walks into the dining room. In the middle of the large round table is a ceramic dish containing the truffle pasta, which is already creating an intoxicating aroma. Everyone’s eyes are fixed on the dish. Next to each person is a side plate with a small black truffle on it.
Ruth encourages Anna to start by serving herself, she passes her the Parmesan grater and Anna starts shaving bits of her truffle on to her pasta. Thin slices of the truffle fall onto her tagliolini like butterflies landing on a plant. They are so delicate they almost melt when they hit the hot food.
“It looks like a cross between a mushroom and a stone,” says Grace, lifting hers up to examine it.
Henri laughs. “Our most famous French gourmet Brillat-Savarin called it ‘the diamond of the kitchen.’”
“I propose a toast,” says Luke. “To the mysterious truffle, which is a little like water. Artists have struggled for years to depict the ocean or a flowing river, and we find it nearly impossible to describe the taste of a truffle.”
Grace takes a mouthful. “I think it tastes like a dog’s paw,” she says. “But in a nice way.”
Olivia nods. “Or kissing.”
Her mother frowns.
“I think it tastes of the underground,” says Anna. “Of leaves and the earth.”
“I think you have it,” nods Luke. “It tastes like a deeply buried secret.”
“Talking of which,” says Ruth, “the farmer who gave me the truffles said that after a truffle dinner the truth always comes out. He talked about la veritá vera.”
Henri nods and finishes his mouthful. “Yes, in fact at my family home in Burgundy after a truffle dinner every person was compelled to reveal a secret in return.”
“How brilliant,” shrieks Olivia. “Let’s do that. We will go around the table. Henri, as it’s your tradition, you go first.”
Henri laughs. “Well for me it’s easy, because none of you really know anything about me. But I will try to come up with a secret that is worthy of this treat.” He pauses and dabs his mouth with his napkin. “When I was at university, I fell in love with a girl called Aysha. She was a Persian princess. After our studies, she went home to Iran. Our families forbade us from seeing each other. We never did see each other again, but every year on her birthday I send 12 yellow roses to the only address I have for her. I wonder every day what happened to her. And what my life might have been if I’d been allowed to marry her.”
There are gasps around the table: the girls agree it’s the most romantic thing they have ever heard.
“I can’t follow that up with anything as good,” says Grace. “My biggest secret is that I bleach my moustache.”
Everyone laughs. “And here’s hoping neither girls ever have such a sad secret to share as Henri,” says Luke raising his glass.
Everyone drinks to that. There is silence as they continue to eat. Every diner privately ensconces in the flavour of the truffle.
“Leave room for the main course!” implores Ruth. “Luke darling, what’s your secret?”
He takes a sip of his wine. “I was once asked to join MI6,” he says.
The girls both look bemused. “It’s the secret intelligence service,” explains Anna. “You know, James Bond and all that.”
“What?” squeals Olivia. “You were a spy?”
Luke smiles. “I said I was asked to join. I didn’t say I did.”
“Well did you?” asks Grace. “I bet you’re good at keeping secrets, you look just the type.”
“You’ll have to wait until the next truffle dinner to find out,” Luke says, winking at her. “Olivia your turn.”
Olivia closes her almond-shaped green eyes and leans back in her chair before hurling herself forward again and staring around her. “I am, in fact, an alien.”
They all laugh. “I’m sorry, I just can’t think of anything. Well, nothing I’d want to say in front of my parents anyway!”
It’s Ruth’s turn. She doesn’t hesitate. “It’s such a silly thing really, but it is a secret, and I’ve never told anyone. Years and years ago when we were first married,” she nods at Luke, “I had this stupid notion that Anna was in love with Luke.”
The girls start laughing. Luke mumbles something along the lines of ‘really Ruth’ but she silences them all with her hands.
“I told you it was silly. Anyway, I sent an email to Anna, from your email account Luke, asking her to meet at a hotel in Piccadilly. I even gave a room number and my plan was to go there, to see if she showed up. To catch her red-handed! On the day before the planned rendezvous, my mother fell off a horse and broke her leg and I had to go up to Yorkshire to look after her, so I never made it to the hotel. I often wondered if Anna was there, waiting for Luke, all alone, disappointed and hurt.” She pats Anna on the shoulder. “And now here we all are, all these years on, funny isn’t it?”
The brief silence is interrupted by Henri.
“Well, I think that even trumps my secret,” he says, raising a glass. “To friendship, long may it last!”
Everyone drinks a toast.
“Anna?” says Olivia. “Your turn.”
Anna takes another sip of her wine before placing her glass carefully on the white linen cloth. She clears her throat. “I got that message, Ruth. And I replied to it,” she looks over at Luke.
Ruth stares at them both. “Yes, but Luke didn’t meet you?” she demands.
Anna looks at her, but doesn’t answer.
Even her expensive makeup can’t hide the fact that Ruth has gone as white as her linen tablecloth.
“And even if he did,” she continues. “You didn’t have him, I had him, I married him. Luke is my husband.”
Anna stands up to leave.
Ruth continues, almost spitting out the words. “You’re all alone, you ended up with nothing, nothing at all.”
“I didn’t end up with nothing, Ruth. As you can see, I had everything I wanted,” Anna says nodding towards her daughter.