Italian truffles are a highly prized part of the culinary experience, not only in Italy, but also around the world. They have been greatly sought after for centuries and, as the rarest variety is resistant to artificial attempts at cultivation, are still harvested from the wild in the same way they always have been.
Italian Truffles – Usage
Truffles are a form of fungi which are diced and sliced to add a unique flavour to many dishes. White truffles are traditionally served raw; black, burgundy and summer truffles are generally cooked. These delicacies are served in several different ways depending on their type; shaved and sprinkled over pasta or fried eggs, used as a stuffing for meat dishes and to add their distinctive tang to sauces. They are usually eaten fresh, sometimes within hours of being harvested, so as to make the most of their pungent aroma and strong taste. The darker truffles can be canned or bottled for export, the more delicate white Italian truffles will not keep for long enough and should be consumed as soon as possible after harvesting.
Location and sourcing
The ease of finding truffles is decreasing as their popularity grows. Any truffle location will only be fruitful for around 15 years and as a result, an industry has grown up around inoculating suitable tree seedlings with truffle spores before transplanting them to suitable locations later in the trees’ lives.
Truffles are an underground species, living among the roots of a host tree, often an oak or a willow, and feeding off its nutrients. They are slow breeders, which accounts for their rarity. Each truffle fungus produces only one fruit a year, sometime during the winter months. Truffle festivals are traditionally held in autumn, but the main harvest season lasts from late summer all the way through until early spring.
Truffles are found in many locations in Europe, but Italian truffles are regarded as the best and have been used as food, medicine and aphrodisiacs for centuries. Their rarity and unusual flavour have led to their high status among chefs and epicures. A good harvest can see prices of around €2,000 a kilogram, while a smaller yield will easily double that price.
Italian Truffles – Harvesting
Italian truffles are traditionally harvested with the help of sows or truffle hounds. Some are dug by hand when a truffle farmer knows his location. The use of dogs for locating truffles is currently favoured, as pigs have a tendency to eat the truffle rather than merely indicate its presence. To a female wild pig, the truffle apparently smells like a boar’s pheromones, and this is irresistible to her.
It is possible to harvest truffles of one variety or another almost all year round, but the highest demand is for the white Italian truffles from the region around Alba. Unfortunately, the bad news is that at the moment, the quantity and quality of these rare specimens from Piedmont is decreasing.
Broadly divided into the ultra-rare white truffle and the more common black varieties, there are at least eight different species of true Italian truffle.
The white Italian truffle (tartufo bianco) is the most sought after variety, with incredibly high prices being paid for consignments which are often freshly gathered that morning and always served raw. They are prized for their flavour and aroma, which varies depending on which tree they grew under.
Black truffles (tartufo nero) are more plentiful and hardier than the white variety. They are cooked and used to add distinctive flavour to sauces and even spreads. Truffle oil, olive oil infused with pieces of truffle and drizzled over dishes before serving, is another popular way to enjoy the distinctive taste and aroma. Risotto served with truffle is popular both as a fresh dish and in jars.
Black truffles are found later in the year than the much rarer (and therefore more prized) white variety. Summer truffles (tartufo estivo), as their name suggests, are harvested from May to August and are more of a brown colour at times than a black shade.
Burgundy truffles (tartufo nero di Fragno) are widely distributed all over Europe, not just Italy, and are often used as a substitute for the Perigord variety of black truffles, as their taste is similar.
Italian Truffles – Purchase
Italian truffles can be sampled at high end restaurants around the world in season, and can also be bought from reputable importers or direct from a truffle harvester during a truffle festival.
It is important to use a trusted supplier, as only then can the freshness and authenticity of the truffles be guaranteed.
There is a wealth of detailed information online for those looking to learn more about the rarefied world of truffles. Unsurprisingly the truffle hunters themselves are not so keen to share their knowledge, but if the Chinese have anything to do with it, black truffles will be seriously commercialised before too long.
However for now, despite (or perhaps because of) their rarity, Italian truffles continue to be in high demand at the best and most exclusive restaurants worldwide. They are a true gourmet food which should be enjoyed if the chance presents itself.