NAPA – On a spring Sunday morning, Ken Monnens and Masao Jim Uyeda hosted a brunch at Twisted Willow Farm, their home, the first and oldest Napa Valley truffle orchard. It boasts more than 600 hazelnut trees planted seven years ago, on whose roots the black truffles grow.
The occasion was to celebrate the arrival of a new litter of Lagotto Romagnolo puppies, also known as Italian water dogs, the friendly and affectionate ancient Italian breed used to hunt truffles.
Now that entrepreneurs Ken and Jim are breeding the dogs and growing the fabulous subterranean fungi, all you truffle-lovers (that’s everyone, isn’t it?) will now have a source for your supply — after chefs Thomas Keller and Gary Danko get first dibs.
THE TRUFFLE DOGS
It is believed that all modern water retriever breeds (including poodles) have descended from the Lagotto Romagnolo, whose roots can be traced back to the 1400s.
Though virtually any dog can be trained to hunt truffles, the Lagotto Romagnolo is the only breed recognized for sniffing out the delicacy. While pigs have traditionally been used for the hunt, dogs are preferable because they are easier to control and unlike pigs aren’t tempted to eat the object of their quest.
This working breed is loyal and obedient with a bright, happy demeanor. Easily trained and very affectionate, they become very attached to their owners and make good companions and family pets. Like a poodle, their thick, curly hair is often described as hypoallergenic, and they hardly shed a hair.
In late May, the puppies left for their new homes after Ken and Jim’s Memorial Day “Puppy Pick-up Picnic.”
Ken and Jim purchased their first truffle dog from Jim Sanford, considered the best Lagotto breeder and trainer in the U.S. He is the resident truffle dog trainer at the eastern Tennessee Relais & Chateaux, Blackberry Farm, which has its own truffle plantation.
Pop and country singer k.d. lang dubbed the dog Roman while visiting Ken and Jim at their farm. She said the dog reminded her of an Italian warrior—strong and confident.
Roman was sired by Sanford’s dog, Tom, considered to be king of the truffle hunters, thus making Roman, also a fine truffle hunter, the prince.
A few months after acquiring Roman, Ken picked up a female Lagotto, Ambra, while visiting the world-famous Alba Truffle Festival in Italy.
MEMORIAL DAY “PUPPY PICK-UP” PICNIC
Over Memorial Day weekend, Ken and Jim held their “Puppy Pick-up Picnic,” celebrating the arrival of their new puppies (and their handoff to their new owners) and the harvest of summer fruits and vegetables of Twisted Willow Farm.
Ken and Jim wanted the puppies to be picked at the Napa Farm and personally accompanied home by their new owners, who came from places as far-flung as Manhattan, Houston, Seattle, Montecito and St. Helena. (Jim said when he handed over the first puppy, he teared up: “It felt like giving away a child.”)
TWISTED WILLOW FARM
Twisted Willow Farm was the realization of a dream by its owners. After years in the corporate sector, Jim, a former international banking executive, and Ken, a branding expert whose firm creates identities, packaging, and marketing materials, decided to better balance their lives and spend more time in the country.
The sold a large, labor-intensive Napa Valley hillside estate and then, in a single afternoon, found a dilapidated 20-acre farm on the Valley floor, which extends to the Napa River bank, negotiated, and closed the deal.
I’ve watched them grow and develop Twisted Willow Farm, which now includes a barn-inspired house with a gigantic fireplace and open kitchen, a guesthouse, chicken coop, miniature ponies, an organic vegetable garden, and an extensive rose and flower garden.
The farm is the perfect place for Jim and Ken to indulge their love of cooking and entertaining. They constantly ply friends with produce and flowers from their gardens.
“When I calculated our total farming cost, we’re eating $80 tomatoes,” Ken joked — but they’re flavorful enough to merit the cost.
Jim and Ken say the relaxed Napa Valley lifestyle starts with great friends and includes sharing the finest fresh foods, perfectly paired wines, and laughter. Newcomers like visiting New Yorker Polly Onet, in town to rebrand and renovate Jamieson Ranch Winery, are always welcome.
After brunch, Ken took Polly and me on a tour of the farm to see the miniature ponies and of course the famous truffle dogs and their new puppies.
Truffles are the fungi that grow one to ten inches underground, on the roots of oak, hazelnut, and chestnut trees.
Though many assume that truffles, the very expensive, seasonal ingredient beloved by gourmet cooks, come only from Italy and France, they can be cultivated anywhere that has the right climate and environment.
To learn the business of truffle farming, Jim and Ken have attended dozens of truffle seminars and festivals, from Alba, Italy to Oregon.
Napa Valley has similar terroir as France’s Perigord region, famous for truffles (and foie gras!). Ken and Jim draw inspiration from that region and check the rainfall in Perigord so they can irrigate to better replicate its weather conditions in Napa.
SCAMPAGNATA! A DAY IN THE COUNTRY
In Oakville, Napa Valley, Rolando Beramendi hosted a group of 50 for a spring luncheon celebration he called “Scampagnata! A Day in the Country.”
His inspiration was the British film, A Room with a View (1985), adapted from E. M. Forster’s novel, directed by James Ivory, and produced by Ismail Merchant.
Beramendi wanted to re-create a Florentine country setting in the Edwardian period, when free-spirited Brits migrated there to escape the restrictive culture of the Victorian times.
The luncheon was set at the Tuscan-style Napa Valley estate “Villa Mille Rose,” home of Maria Manetti Shrem and Jan Shrem. A working farm, the almost completely sustainable estate features olive trees, vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, and vineyards.
Beramendi was the ideal person to imagine and realize such an event. Raised in Tuscany and Argentina, holder of a degree in economics from UC Davis, a lover of fine foods and cooking, he is the founder of Manicaretti, a business importing artisanal Italian foods to retailers and restaurants nationwide.
Originally, Beramendi had imagined a casual affair, guests picnicking on the grass, sitting on blankets, and dining on finger food. But as the number of guests grew, he opted instead for tables under umbrellas, much to our pleasure.
The walkabout Sunday luncheon (passegiata in Italian) began under the wisteria-laden pergola, where guests sipped Prosecco infused with fresh strawberry or raspberry syrup.
After cocktails, guests slowly strolled along gravel paths to the next stop, the olive grove. Here we sampled olives from Italy’s Puglia region that are called crudo (raw), as they are cured with water and salt alone.
We sauntered off to the next station in the vegetable garden, where a gigantic Italian ceramic dish was piled high with the first and freshest spring vegetables of the season (pinzimonio in Italian), including the sweetest and most tender carrots I’ve tasted in a long time.
UNDER THE UMBRELLAS
The last stop was the terrace overlooking the rose garden, the hills, and the vineyards of Villa Mille Rose, where skirted round tables were set up under umbrellas and topped with vases filled with show-stopping roses from the estate’s garden in full bloom.
The “star” of the all-Italian meal was a whole porchetta, a traditional centerpiece of Italian celebrations. Beramendi had researched local butchers and chose Napa’s The Fatted Calf to provide a roasted 50-pound pig.
“We’re so lucky,” said Beramendi, in raising a toast. “Look what we have here: A great meal, the setting, the view, the light, the company — and we have time to stop and smell the roses.”
Photos by Jeanne Lawrence.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.