Truffle Facts, Findings, the King, the Rebel
Most people have heard about Truffles and know they are some kind of very expensive mushroom with a distinctive taste and smell. However not everyone has tasted them, especially freshly sliced truffles, as opposed to a sauce with truffle scented oil and some small percentage of the real thing. So in this article I will try to address many unanswered questions about what makes them so special and sought after.
Truffles have a very ancient history, as they were known to the ancient Egyptians as well as the Sumerians. The first culinary endeavours featuring them started in France in the late 1700s at the court of Maréchal De Contades (cuisiniers Jean Pierre Clause and Nicolas Francois Doyen), where truffles were blended into the famous Paté de Fois Gras. They then spread through French and Italian cuisine as quickly as wildfire.
There are about 60 varieties of truffles, of which 25 grow in Italy, the greatest producer in the world. Of these, 9 or 10 are edible (one species comes in two varieties, hence the double count). Italian soil has proven to be the most bountiful, not just for geological characteristics, but also for the appreciation of truffles in Italy and, most importantly, the expertise of the cercatori (the truffle finders), who can be compared to veritable gold-diggers.
How to find Truffles
The cercatori set off to find truffles in woods, trekking cross-country in quite a secretive manner, as they are extremely jealous of the places where they know the truffles are waiting to be unearthed. Not many mushroom finders will let you know where they favourite places for porcini are, so there is next-to-no chance of someone telling you about truffles.
To find them you will need infinite patience, outdoor gear, as they are most often found in Autumn and Winter, a vanghetto (specifically designed trowel, foldable, two-piece or full size) and a loyal companion, a dog. You can try to train a dog yourself, by throwing a plastic bottle containing a piece of truffle, and rewarding the dog when it brings it back, then moving on to burying it underground. Needless to say, it’s a painstaking process. Or else, you can buy a big pup, half trained, or even a fully trained adult. The best breed, they say, is the Lagotto Romagnolo, a small playful, positively cute, kind of poodle, who doesn’t mind wet weather.
If you don’t know the right places though, it will be like looking for a pin in a haystack. Surprisingly, a friend of mine, Ennio, from Calabria, is capable of finding truffles without a dog or any specific tool. It’s all about knowing the woods like the back of your hand and being truly talented.
The King and its Subjects
The King of Truffles is undoubtedly the White Truffle of Alba (Magnatum Pico) although it could just as well be called di Monferrato or delle Langhe as it can be found in that geographical area (part of Piedmont, Italy). Its scent is strong, distinctive, yet elegant. It is extremely precious because of its rarity and ability to reach considerable sizes. Yes, size matters: Truffles are priced like diamonds, the bigger they are, the more precious they become!
White Truffle Auction
The next White Truffle Auction will take place in the Castle of Grinzane Cavour (a UNESCO WHL Site) on November 8th 2020, with all revenue going to charity. The most famous restaurants and chefs in the world will be jostling to outbid each other, and the Fair as well as the Auction, will attract thousands of foodies.
Black Truffle of Norcia
The Black Truffle of Norcia, or Prestigious Black Truffle (Tartufo Nero Pregiato /Tuber Malenosporum, Central Italy) gives further renown to a place, Norcia, already famous for its excellence in producing groceries. It is collected in Winter and can also be found in France, Spain and parts of Eastern Europe. It can also be cultivated in trufflières (truffle farms).
The Scorzone (Tuber Aestivum) can be harvested in Summer. Its name (scorza means rind in Italian) suggests a thick Peridio (skin), its smell is not as intense as other varieties, and it only grows up to 5 cm in diameter (2 inches), at altitudes as high as 1000 metres. It can also be found in Europe, Morocco and Azerbaijan.
The Bianchetto (Albidum Pico) is another variation of the White Truffle, smaller in size, white on the outside, with a brownish hue on the inside – the inner part is called Gleba – and a less elegant smell, turning garlicky and oily when mature. It can be found in Winter, from January to March, and is especially appreciated in Tuscany, Emilia and Marche Regions.
Black Winter and Smooth Black Truffle
Other varieties are the Black Winter Truffle and the Smooth Black Truffle. These varieties, like all others, grow underground at a depth ranging from 10 to 50 cm (4 to 20 inches) in a symbiotic relationship with the trees above them, acquiring nutrients from their roots.
The Rebel Truffle
The one variety that is strongly rooted in the South of Italy is the Tartufo di Bagnoli Irpino (Tuber Masentericum). Its average size ranges from 2 to 10 cm, it is collected from September to December, and is also known as the Tartufo Ordinario (Ordinary Truffle), yet the intensity of its smell sets it apart, like a brave boxer punching way above his weight class. This makes it special for the food industry, which has fallen in love with it, as it can be used to lend its scent to olive oil and all sorts of sauces. Rather than sticking together, many Italian producers from other Regions, have tried to ostracize this Truffle from Bagnoli, seeing it as an outsider. Yet, just like its peers, it can be found in places of great natural beauty (around Lake Laceno) and, as you will see from the interview with one of its ambassadors, Mr. Lenzi, it has a special talent for making people happy. The interview will appear in my next article.
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