Jules Verne in his Journey to the Centre of the Earth sees Professor Lidenbrok travel from the Snæfellsjökull volcano in Iceland to Sicily and its thunderous Mount Stromboli. Unfortunately, Italy often plays host to seismic and volcanic activity, but it was Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton that immortalised this magical region, shaped by earth’s movements, in his book, The Last Days of Pompeii. Later, the discovery of countless mummies in Herculaneum and Scafati further fuelled the imagination of archaeologists, historians and regular fans of extraordinary happenings.
It is well known that truffles, both the white and black versions, are a prized delicacy. Not in themselves, as no one would scoff a whole plate of truffles, but as an exquisite condiment, auctioned off at stratospheric prices to Europe’s leading restaurants, where they are served to diners as an ingredient across a huge array of dishes and recipes.
Buyers have parted with over three hundred thousand dollars for a kilo of Piemonte white truffle, or Tuber magnatum. However, this price pales into insignificance, it is nothing but spare change, compared to the cost of a single Vesuvius volcanic truffle, or Tuber sulfurea.
The key to finding these culinary diamonds is certain animals’ sense of smell. More specifically, truffle hogs, specially trained pigs. And it’s no easy task, particularly when you take into account the almost inaccessible mountain terrain.
Genetic Pigs Inc., a company set up with Russian capital, had developed a gene mutation for swine, which enabled them to detect truffles much quicker. These genetically engineered pigs, suspended from a specially designed contraption as described later, were able to sniff out volcanic truffles hundreds of metres away.
At this juncture it is important to point out that the Neapolitan variety of theTuber sulfurea only grows on the inner slopes of Mount Vesuvius. And of course, Vesuvius is to be found in the land of pizzas.
A huge figure of Saint Januarius, the patron of Naples and focus of genuine passion among the region’s inhabitants, presided over the entrance to the establishment run by Gian Carlo and Rosetta on Spaccanapoli Street, in the city’s old town. Business at their pizza place was going from bad to worse. Southern Italy was by no means immune to the boom in fast food franchises backed by foreign multinationals, while payments to the Ngrandheta (the Neapolitan mafia) made it impossible for them to prosper. Until one day, a stern-looking Englishman walked into their pizzería and without the least introduction declared, “I was born in London and we don’t have truffle pizzas there.”
“Pardon, sir,” replied Gian Carlo, taken aback.
“Nor will we ever have them, because they’re made with freshly collected Vesuvius volcanic truffles, manually microtome sliced in situ before this heterotrophic organism looses its organoleptic properties.”
Rosetta, mouth wide open, glanced at her husband and managed to say, “Organo… what?”
“Who are you?” Gian Carlo inquired.
“Williams. Doctor Theodor Williams at your service. I’m the inventor of the volcanic pizza, but I’m lacking a place to sell it. I’ve been researching your establishment over the past few weeks and I’ve observed that things aren’t going too well. Your clientele prefers the prefab pizzas sold on the corner or just opposite.” As he spoke, Williams elegantly took off his hat and pointed to a colourful eatery belonging to Pizza Bell Away King, the chain that had wiped out almost all the artisan pizza-makers.
“It’s true. But what’s an Englishman doing in this part of Naples…?”
“I’ve patented a new breed of genetically engineered pig capable of detectingTuber sulfurea with algorithmic precision.”
“I’ve joined forces with a Russian firm to inject this genome into Neapolitan pigs, up to five generations, and we’re about to obtain the first litters. These hogs will make us all rich. What’s more, they live like kings, listen to classic music and have never even heard of pigswill. Their menu is fit for the very finest tables.”
“A Russian firm?”
“Yes, as you can see, regardless of what the international press may have to say, both powers maintain excellent trading links.”
“All of this sounds very interesting, but what do you want with us, Mr. Williams?”
“Dr. Williams,” came the polite but firm correction before he continued his explanation. “Your love for pizza. Of all the pizzerias I’ve observed in Naples, yours is the one that exudes real passion for the product. And a natural inclination to champion the underdog. I detest how the large fast food chains are doing away with traditional businesses like yours. I will bring you freshly collected Vesuvius volcanic truffles every morning without fail; I’ll show you how my process works and you’ll be able to sprinkle your pizzas with this magical ingredient from the bowels of the Earth.”
The method employed to search out and collect the truffles was elaborate, to say the least. Enormous cranes, similar to those used for demolition works, dangled cages containing a dozen or so truffle hogs inside the crater of Mount Vesuvius. They swung back and forth, like divining rods or a shaman’s pendulum. And it worked. The genetically engineered pigs managed to swing their cages in such a way as to indicate the exact location of the prized fungi.
The first time that Theodor delivered Gian Carlo and Rosetta a huge jar packed with volcanic truffles, he said, “Put these on your pizzas and this business will flourish. It will overshadow Mount Vesuvius itself. You’ll recover your clientele and I, my investment. Do we have a deal?”
Rosetta and Gian Carlo who, like most Neapolitans, were very superstitious, begged Theodor to accompany them on a visit to the Duomo, to see their patron Saint Januarius, and ask his blessing for their new agreement.
“Do you know what? For me, there’s only one other saint in Naples who can compete with Saint Januarius,” Gian Carlo explained to the scientist.
“Diego Armando Maradona.”
Dr. Williams’ face fell. Everyone knows the antagonism felt in the UK towards the man nicknamed El Pelusa (or fluffball) and that “Hand of God” which decided the result of a match that no Englishman has ever been able to forget.
“I’ll pretend not to have heard you,” said Theodor Williams curtly. “The three of us are united by a group of exceptionally gifted truffle hogs, but football could tear us apart. So don’t ever mention that name again.”
Illustrator: Amaia Arrazola