The 19th century French gourmet Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called truffles “the diamonds of the kitchen”. And, to this day, most foodies would agree that nothing says culinary status symbol quite like adding a shaving or two of these pungent yet aromatic “underground mushrooms” to a dish. Since Italy is home to some of world’s most prized varieties of truffles, we at Eating Italy have come up with this guide for gastronomes wishing to find, eat and (money permitting!) buy a truffle or two!
What are truffles?
Simply put, truffles, or tartufi as they are called in Italian, are underground fungi or mushrooms that grow close to tree (usually hazelnut, beech or oak) roots. They can be found as far below ground as 30 cm. Above-ground mushrooms grow stems and caps which allow them to spread their spores and reproduce. Truffles, however, are dependent on animals – often attracted by the tuber’s odor – to spread their spores above ground and guarantee their reproduction.
How are truffles harvested?
Truffles are harvested or “hunted” by trifolai (“truffle hunters”) and dogs that have been trained to recognize the distinct odor these tubers emit. In the past, pigs or “truffle hogs” – with their innate and keen sense of smell – were employed for this purpose. They proved, however, to be far too unwilling to give up their spoils! For this reason, trifolai instead began using dogs, which are more easily trained. In Italy, the lagotto romagnolo is believed to be the best breed of dog for truffle-hunting. Dogs of any breed, though, can be trained to sniff out and dig up truffles.
What kind of truffles can I find in Italy?
In Italy, you’ll find several varieties of truffles. The most well-known are:
- Tuber melanosporum, the “Norcia Black Truffle” (in France, this truffle is referred to as the Périgord Truffle)
- Tuber aestivum, the “Black Summer Truffle”
- Tuber magnatum, the “White Truffle”
- Tuber borchii, the “Whitish Truffle”
When is it truffle season in Italy?
That depends on the type of truffle. The highly-esteemed White Truffle is harvested from September to November and the Norcia Black Truffle and Whitish Truffle are in season from winter to spring. The Black Summer Truffle’s season is self-explanatory! Remember to keep these periods in mind whenever inspecting a menu with truffle dishes!
When and where are Italy’s main truffle fairs?
|February||Norcia Black Truffle Fair||Norcia, Umbria|
|October-November||Alba International White Truffle Fair||Alba, Piedmont|
|November||White Truffle Fair||Città del Castello, Umbria|
|November||White Truffle Fair||San Miniato, Tuscany|
What do truffles taste like?
This also depends on the type of truffle. The most highly prized of the black truffles, the Norcia Black Truffle, has an intense but not overly pungent aroma. Their scent is often described as reminiscent of strawberries or even dried fruit. They are also called the sweet black truffle for this reason. Its cousin, the Black Summer Truffle, has a similar but less intense aroma. The most prestigious truffle of them all, the White Truffle, has a particularly complex and pronounced flavor with earthy notes of garlic, honey and forest floor. The taste of the Whitish Truffle, which is similar in appearance (both have a smooth, ochre-colored surface) to the White Truffle, is distinctly garlicky.
Why are truffles so expensive?
Basically, it’s a case of high demand and short supply. European royalty took a liking to these tasty tubers in the 18th century and since then, gastronomes and high-end chefs have sought out this not easily obtainable and rare food. Some truffles, such as the Norcia Black Truffle, can and have been cultivated in truffières (truffle farms), but their yield is generally modest. The White or “Royal” Truffle has not been reproduced outside its natural habitat with any success, thus adding to its mystique and astronomically high retail price of €1, 800 a kilo!
Now that I’ve bought myself a small truffle, what can I do with it?
Lots of things! But, once again, it is also depends on the type of truffle you’ve just treated yourself to. White truffles should not be cooked at all, as their aromas are destroyed by this process. Their taste is best enjoyed raw and shaved as finely as possible over eggs, plain risottos and pasta dishes. Norcia Black Truffles, on the other hand, keep their intense aroma when heated. Dishes enhanced with the distinct flavors of these tubers are best paired with a fine red wine (this is the perfect occasion to open that bottle of Barbaresco or Brunello di Montalcino on your wine rack!) or a medium-to-full bodied white wine. Whatever you end up making, just remember to consume your truffle quickly, as they can only be stored for up to 6-8 days in a paper bag (never in plastic or foil) in your fridge.
Some truffle trivia…
- The skin of a truffle is called its peridium and its interior or flesh is referred to as its gleba.
- It is traditional at each edition of the Alba International White Truffle Fair for the organizers to send that year’s biggest truffle to someone famous. U.S. President Harry S. Truman happened to be the lucky recipient one year. Not a fan of the strange odor his mysterious gift let out, he mistook it for a potato gone bad and threw it away!
- In France, at the turn of the 20th century, there was great success in getting Périgord Black Truffles to reproduce outside of their natural habitat, in especially cultivated truffières in Provence. The enormous increase in truffle production meant that, by 1914, the price of truffles had fallen to 10 francs per kilo, the same price as potatoes! During the war, the trees in the truffieres were chopped down for their timber. Needless to say, truffle prices shot up again after the war.