A true gourmet delicacy—the truffle, or tartufo, is the only food on the planet that is literally worth its weight in gold. A truffle is the fruiting body of an underground mushroom, usually found near trees. This difficult to find fungus is extremely expensive and used in the highest of cuisine. Truffle harvesters, or trifolau, use trained female pigs and dogs to sniff out the delicious fungal treasures. Harvest season is a time of celebration, not just for the trifolau, but for the locals as well who host popular truffle festivals. These celebrations can be found mainly in Piedmonte and Umbria, the two centers of Italian truffle country. It is here in autumn that one will find freshly harvested truffles in various culinary specialties. Often an acquired taste, due to its bold flavor and powerful aroma, the truffle is a rare delicacy savored by many throughout the world.
Truffles are round, warty, and irregular in shape. They vary from the size of a walnut to that of a man’s fist. Truffles are similar to mushrooms in that they have a system of root-like structures. Unlike mushrooms, truffles never emerge from the surface. They form below the soil close to the roots of a tree as the result of the tree’s relationship with another fungus. The fungus that makes truffles can only survive in certain soil conditions such as those around oak, willow and linden trees. Each type of tree gives a distinctive aroma and flavor to the truffle. Once attached to a root, the fungus will produce only one truffle per year!
Way back during the Classical period Italy produced three kinds of truffles: tuber melanosporum, tuber magnificanus, and tuber magnatum. Today there are at least eight species growing in Italy. These delicious fungi are harvested from late summer to early spring by experienced trifolau. The truffle harvesters must keep their special truffle groves a secret, often taking long twisting trails in the evening when it is dark or in the early morning fog. This secrecy ensures their paycheck, but it also serves a much greater purpose. They are protecting the future of the truffle by keeping them from ravaging poachers, who would not dig with the care to protect the truffle forming fungus underground. The trifolau enlists the help of either a trained pig or dog for their superior sense of smell, without which truffles would be even less available or potentially unheard of. Thankfully, their noses have not only lead humans to truffles, but they have steered us to a variety of different types.
Of all varieties of truffle, the white truffle, or tartufo bianco, is the most sought after and gourmet. It is found most abundantly in Piedmonte growing near oaks, willows, and poplars. Tartufo bianco is the most aromatic and flavorful of all the truffle species and it is only served fresh. It is far too delicate for cooking, but can be preserved or infused in olive oil. The white truffle is typically shaved raw over pasta dishes and raw meat antipasti to enhance the flavors and aromas. It is also sliced thin and served in salads or on eggs. The white truffle is harvested between September and December, with the best quality coming from the Alba area and the lesser known Marche region near Aqualanga.
The more plentiful and affordable, but less aromatic and flavorful black truffle, or tartufo nero, is still a gourmet delicacy, less so only relative to the white variety. These truffles are found in Piedmonte and as far south as Umbria, especially along the Nera river. They often have a wrinklier skin but are similar in size to the white truffle. The tartufo nero is more suitable for cooking and is often found in sauces for pasta, spreads for bruschetta or crostini, and in omelets. It can also be sliced raw and served with carpaccio or bresaola. Black truffles and their products can be found preserved in cans or jars.
There are many products that come from truffles. They range from preserved whole truffles, to purees, dried pastas, sauces and pastes. Truffle risotto is sold with crushed pieces of black truffle mixed with the rice. Truffles will give their flavors and aromas to nearly anything including flour for pasta, bread, and sea salt. Truffle infused olive oil is the most popular truffle product. Both black and white truffles are added to extra virgin olive oil, creating spicier, stronger flavored oil. Truffle oil is very delicate and expensive so it is not cooked with. Instead it is drizzled on top of savory dishes just prior to serving.
Regardless of what truffle product you choose or how you add it to your meal, you can be sure to expect a unique flavor that is indescribably tasty and unforgettable. The rich unmistakable earthy taste and aroma of truffles cannot be matched; it is truly culinary gold.