Preposterously elusive, harvested with spy-story secrecy in the darkness of night, imbued with an otherworldly mix of sublime and naughty fragrances – and often confused with the fine chocolate praline called by the same name – truffles have been celebrated by cooks for centuries.
“The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: We do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: Eat us and praise the Lord.”
–– Alexandre Dumas
It’s hard to believe that one of the rarest, most expensive foods in the world is located thanks to the nose of pigs and dogs. These exceptional mushrooms are actually knobbly tubers with a very penetrating smell. Tartufi are found growing underground around the roots of trees, mainly oak, chestnut, poplar, linden, hazel and beech trees. They can be found up to three feet underground, never beyond the outreach of the extended branches.
The difficult-to find truffles are routed out by animals. Pigs are naturals at it, dogs need to be specially trained to do so. Pigs have keener noses, but dogs are less inclined to gobble up the prize. Once the dog has indicated a possible find, the trifulao (Piedmont dialect for ‘expert truffle harvester’) uses a narrow spade with a long handle to dig up the truffle without damaging it. He has to be extra careful not to touch the truffle with his hands since it could cause the fungus to be contaminated, and ultimately rot. If the truffle isn’t ripe, it is carefully reburied for future harvesting. This methodical, slow and labor-intensive reaping process is what makes tartufi so extremely expensive.
Heady, earthy, garlicky truffles with their unusually delicate flavor are an incredible delicacy. Of the almost 70 known varieties, the most desirable is the ‘white truffle’ (which is actually pale cream with white marbling) of the Alba region of Piemonte. Other truffles commonly found in Italy are Tartufo Marzuolo or Bianchetto aka “whitish” truffle. In the realm of black truffles, which are less aromatic and precious as the white, there’s the Summer Black Truffle also known as “Scorzone”, Tartufo Nero Uncinato Chatin, Tartufo Nero pregiato (precious black), Tartufo Nero d’inverno (winter truffle) and Tartufo Nero Liscio (black smooth-skinned truffle).
Trifulao truffle hunters often have their own harvesting spots, which are kept extremely secret. A dog trained to sniff out truffles is the best and most environmentally friendly way to hunt for the “diamond of the kitchen”, as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called truffles. In Italian, to call someone un cane da tartufo, a truffle hunting dog, is a compliment regarding the person’s olfactory prowess.
Late autumn means Italy goes truffles crazy: chefs and food lovers will do anything to get their hands on a prized nugget at this time of year. Home cooks often turn to the more affordable black varieties mentioned above for family preparations, and instead treat themselves to a few shaved scales of tartufo bianco only on special occasions. A trusted specialty food store owner calls me every fall season with hushed tones and whispers the ‘T’ word. He always saves me a small white truffle whenever a few arrive into his shop straight from Alba. If I can afford it, I may buy one and then design an entire menu around the little smelly thing.
- Fresh truffles should be used as soon as possible after purchasing but can be stored up to 2-3 days in the refrigerator.
- To take full advantage of their perfumy fragrance, bury them wrapped in a lightly dampened paper towel in a glass container full of uncooked arborio rice and cover tightly before refrigerating. The truffle fragrance will permeate the rice they’re stored with, giving you a double-flavor bonus for future risotto.
- Be sure to keep the container away from dairy products which tend to absorb fragrances.
- Shortly prior to shaving your tartufo, gently brush any surface grit away with a very soft toothbrush under running cold water. And, if the thought of ingesting the skin of the dark species freaks you out, you can peel it (saving the peelings for soups or vegetable broths). White truffles should not be peeled. Ever!
- The special truffle-slicer is used to shave paper-thin slivers of tartufo to flavor cooked foods like omelettes, polenta, risottos, fondue or delicate sauces, and can be slivered at the last minute over literally anything, from a fried egg, steamed asparagus, to delicately seasoned beef carpaccio.
- I believe the best way to enjoy the full pang of flavorsome tartufi is in minimalism. My favorite way is shaving them over a simple dish of fresh (possibly homemade) pasta, tossed with only a little salted butter. Tagliolini or equally delicate ribbony noodles are the best choices. While the delicate and extravagantly priced white truffle is shaved raw over simple foods, the bolder blacks give their best when cooked. The pan’s heat makes them softer and extracts their unique aroma. Cook them for a few minutes to flavor glazed meat gravies, alcoholic reductions or concentrated broths.
Note: Unfortunately truffles have not been proven to be aphrodisiac, sorry.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.