White truffel
The priceless Italian white truffle
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There are at least 8 different types of truffle in Italy, including the coveted white truffle. Piedmont, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria and the Marche are among the most popular regions for truffle hunting. You can't just go truffle hunting on your own, you have to have official permission. Traditionally, pigs were used to find the truffles. Nowadays, dogs are used, mainly for practical reasons: they don't damage the roots and are easy to train. A lot easier to control then a rabid truffle pig on a rope.

In the world of gastronomy, the truffle is a treasure. It is literally and figuratively worth its weight in gold. Truffles, especially the white variety, except in parts of northern Italy and Umbria where 'tartufi' are a key ingredient in local dishes, are often too expensive for the average consumer. The harvest season is a time of celebration for both the truffle gatherers (trifolau) and the locals, with popular truffle festivals being held in most towns. A visit in autumn, with many regional specialities featuring fresh truffles brought in the same night or morning, will reward many a traveler with culinary gold.

What is a truffle actually?

We used to think that truffles grew in places where lightning had struck, but that turned out to be a fairy tale. Although truffles are related to mushrooms, one of the fundamental differences is that, unlike mushrooms, truffles never grow above the ground.

The fungus that truffles are made from grows on the roots of some trees and shrubs, such as oak and hazel. This means that the fungus gets its nutrition from this tree or shrub. Scientists are still trying to figure out whether the truffle is a parasite on the tree, or whether the tree benefits from this close relationship. Once the fungus has attached itself to a root (mycelium), it produces only 1 truffle per year. Each tree species and soil type can give the truffle a slightly different aroma or flavor.

Another important difference is that black truffles have since been successfully cultivated in Tartufaias, a place where they grow truffles, like a vineyard. White truffles, on the other hand, have never been cultivated, which also remains a mystery to scientists.

At a truffle market in Umbria

A brotherhood of well-kept secrets

Truffle hunters are secretive about where they find their truffles. They often take long detours and different routes in the middle of the night or in the early morning fog, to mislead others who might follow them. They are like a fisherman who will never reveal his best fishing spot. And they are cautious not to give away any "trade secrets" when they talk. They will never tell you if they have had a good day or a bad day - you won't be able to tell from their poker face. Families keep records of find locations, the temperature of the day, the humidity of the months before, and sometimes even the phase of the moon at the time of the find.

It is also thanks to this secrecy that the truffles still exist, as they are not being dug up by inexperienced people who damage the fungi. Digging truffles without a dog who will indicate that the truffles are 'maturo' (ripe) is strictly forbidden. They prefer to use crossbred dogs. They can smell truffles better than purebred dogs. Without a well-trained dog, finding truffles is almost impossible. The dog is trained to smell only ripe truffles. He may even find a truffle on the way back, when it was apparently not ripe on the way in.

Although a morning with a truffle hunter is a popular tourist excursion these days, it must be clear from what I just told you that a truffle hunt will never be anything more than a nice morning walk in a misty autumn forest, accompanied by a truffle dog and its master, who usually has hidden some truffles beforehand. It is still fun, but you are unlikely to experience the real thing.

Hermes the truffle dog

The difference between white and black truffles

The culinary value of the white truffle is mainly due to its aroma, and that of the black truffle is mainly due to its taste. White truffles (Tartufo Bianco Pregiato) are the most expensive and come mainly from Piedmont near Alba and the Marche, where they are found around Acqualagna. Harvested from September to the end of December, they have a smooth skin and look a little pale, almost brown and sometimes a little pink, compared to their more distant relatives with black wrinkles, depending on the terroir where they are found. White truffles range in size from blueberry to orange, sometimes even coconut, and are almost as expensive as gold at auction. Recently, a specimen of around a kilo was auctioned off for nearly €100,000.

The white truffle has a much stronger smell than the black one and is only eaten fresh, never cooked, usually shaved over hot or cold dishes. It can be preserved in good olive oil, but this will not improve its quality. You might also use it to make a nice fresh mayonnaise. 

The culinary value of the black truffle derives more from its flavor and the main varieties are the Nero Pregiato and the Nero Estivo, i.e. the black winter and black summer truffles. The black winter truffle is also known as the Perigord. The black truffle is much more common, less exclusive, and therefore more affordable. In fact, the taste and smell of the black truffle and the white truffle are not at all similar! Fortunately, the dog detects this scent component and hunters are happy with that.

Black truffles are the same size as white truffles, but curiously they rarely grow as large as the white ones, which can weigh up to 2 pounds. They are particularly common in Umbria and Le Marche (but also, for example, in the Perigord in France from mid-December to March). The big difference, apart from the aroma and the price, is that with the black truffle you can actually use a certain amount of heat when you use them in a dish, but be careful and don't overdo it, as it might kill the flavor with too much heat. It is also possible to use it cold in butter, delicious truffle butter on a steak for instance. It freezes well and keeps for months.

Truffles ready to use

What was a good year for truffles?

2011 and 2019 were good and therefore expensive years for white truffles. At the Acqualagna fair, prices were relatively affordable at €1,500 and €2,500 per kg respectively. In 2017, the prices offered were €6,000 (Marche) and €10,000 (Alba) per kg. This was due to the low supply that year. The reason Alba is so much more expensive is that international trade plays an important role in this market. Dealers from all over the world bid against each other.

Truffle hunters say they would rather see a lower price because it is more fun to come home with a few hundred gram after a night or early morning search with your dog, then when you have nothing or very little to show for from your search. The year 2021 was once again a year when prices soared. Blame it on yet another gloriously dry summer. The price was average at the beginning of October starting at €2,000 per kilo. But quickly rose to over €4,000, and for specimens over 50 grams you could easily pay more than €6,000 per kilo in Alba.

Dive into black truffles like uncle Scrooge into his money 

A good friend and well known food writer tells me that even in the most exclusive restaurants outside Italy, truffles show up sparsely on your plate, 'a few flakes' maybe. In Umbria, they are abundant! You must wallow in the smell of truffles, sink into them like a vampire in a bubble bath, dive into them like Uncle Scrooge into his money.

He also advises that fresh truffles should be washed in lukewarm water and then dried well. Crush black truffles very finely or grind them in a mortar and pestle or in the bowl of a blender. Heat a little good quality olive oil and sauté a crushed clove of garlic and a fillet of anchovy very gently. Remove from the heat, add the truffle and remove the garlic. Season with salt and pepper and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Heat is good for black truffles, but too much heat will kill the flavor. The sauce can be mixed with pasta or spread over fried trout.

truffle oil

In addition to "real" truffles, chefs often use all kinds of preserved truffles or truffle oils. These condiments frequently contain real truffles, but they have been sterilized (you can't keep them otherwise) and have lost most of their flavor. Flavor is added through derivatives. If you like it, great, because it is very cheap, but do not mistake it for real truffles.

This article used some text that previously appeared in ´Great Italian Chefs´.

The author is Wijnand Luttikholt, chef and owner of Ca'Palazzo Holiday Homes in the Marche, connoisseur of truffles.


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