The mysterious and elusive truffle has had ardent fans for thousands of years. Composer Gioacchino Rossini dubbed the truffle the 'Mozart of mushrooms,' Lord Byron kept one on his desk to awaken creativity, Alexandre Dumas coined it the gourmet holy of holies, while the Count of Cavour used it as a gesture of diplomacy in political affairs.
With auction prices that can range from €500 to a staggering €130,000, the truffle is without doubt the most prized member of the vegetable kingdom. A bulge that originated, as legend says 'at the hand of the god Jupiter', endowed with the power to enrich any dish, from a simple risotto to haute cuisine.
The tuber fungi's origins, in terms of its use by man, date to 1700 BC in the time of the Sumerians, before that of the Ancient Romans. In the Roman encyclopedia Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder wrote that it is born, not grown, capable of surviving without roots as if it were a callus on the Earth's surface.
For many centuries the truffle inspired both interest and fear, bizarre theories were even proposed to classify its role in biology. The truffle was properly introduced into modern day gastronomy thanks to Giacomo Morra, a hotelier and restaurateur from the town of Alba in the Piedmont region, famous for the white truffle.
There are over a hundred different truffle varieties, but the most sought-after can be reduced to six. The two most superior are the white truffle of Alba and the black truffle of Norcia. The latter has a less intense smell than the white truffle, but is equally favoured by gourmet experts. The black truffle is gathered between November and March, growing in abundance throughout central Italy (especially in the region of Umbria where it is referred to as the 'black diamond').
Norcia black truffle, source: Mangiarebuono.it
The geographic diffusion of the white truffle is a bit more complex: the region of Piedmont remains the head of its patriarchy – especially on the hills of the Langhe and Monferrato areas, it is also present in the regions of Marche (Acqualagna and Sant'Angelo in Vado), Umbria (Gubbio and Città di Castello), Tuscany (San Miniato) and Romagna (Valle del Montone).
Defined as “an exquisite mystery in the field of gastronomy,” you must train your palate and nose to appreciate and distinguish the truffle's superior taste and intricate scents.
Where to taste white truffles
The International Fair of the Alba White Truffle is one of Piedmont's most important gastronomy appointments. Don't miss the market in Alba's old city centre that attracts tens of thousands of tourists each year with events dedicated to all things truffle.
Held in Alba from October to November every year. www.fieradeltartufo.org
White truffle restaurants
La Piola, Alba: One of the most elegant spots to enjoy tartufo in all its forms.
Piazza Risorgimento 4, Alba, tel. +39 01 7336 6167 www.piazzaduomoalba.it
Antiné: Retreat to a charming atmosphere in this early 20th century home just a few kilometres from Alba.
Via Torino 34A, Barbaresco, tel. +39 01 7363 5294 www.antine.it
Corte Albertina - Also outside Alba, you'll find this former estate of the noble Savoy family that prides itself on impeccable service.
Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, 3 Pollenzo, tel. +39 01 7245 8189 www.ristlacortealbertina.it
Where to taste black truffles
The exhibition of the tartufo Nero Pregiato di Norcia and local products offers a variety of cultural programs. You'll have the opportunity to sample black truffle, as well as cheese and sausages from the Norcia area.
Norcia, last two weekends of February, www.neronorcia.it
Black truffle restaurants
Vespasia del Relais Palazzo Seneca - Refined tasting menus with jazz music stylings.
Via Cesare Battisti 10, Tel. +39 0743 817 434 www.palazzoseneca.com
Enoteca Beccofino: Located in the city centre with an offering of the best regional wines.
Piazza San Benedetto 7/a, Tel. +39 0743 816086, www.ristorantebeccofinonorcia.com
Dal Francese: Local restaurant where you can sample traditional cured meats, stringozzi pasta and barbecued meat.
Via Riguardati 16, Tel. +39 0743 816 290, www.ristorantedalfrancesenorcia.it