It’s bitterly cold and dark, at two in the morning, with the trees wreathed in mist. A hunter ventures into the woods near Alba in Piedmont, carrying just a small spade and a torch. By his side, his essential companion: a dog, the curly-haired Lagotto romagnolo. No map or compass, because he knows his hunting grounds to perfection. He and his loyal friend are searching for a prize hidden underground, one that will fetch between €2,000 and €4,000 per kilo on the market the next day. That is the tartufo bianco, otherwise known as the Tuber magnatum pico or the white truffle.
Truffles are one of the glories of Italy, a supremely food-loving nation. White truffles are the most coveted, with a shorter season, available only from September to May, while black truffles can be bought all the year round at prices from €350 to €800 per kilo. The best truffles are from the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Basilicata, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Marche, and require specific environmental features, such as certain species of trees, types of soil, and climate.
There is no gourmet item that can rival the truffle’s distinctive aroma and unique flavour. Inspiring numerous culinary creations, a few shavings over warm tagliatelle or sliced grilled sirloin can instantly up the status of a dish from classic to chic. But truffles are not a new food trend, apparently the Ancient Romans and Greeks had long appreciated the medicinal and aphrodisiac properties of these fungi.
Round and knobby, they can be as small as a walnut or as large as a fist. Traditionally the truffle hunter used a pig’s naturally acute sense of smell to locate them underground, but it is difficult to stop them devouring them, and so specially-trained dogs are now preferred, such as the lagotto romagnolo (you can see a portrait of this lovely hound in Mantegna’s ‘The Meeting’ in the Camera degli Sposi, Mantua). Pups begin their training by searching for small foil-wrapped truffles buried underground. Their ability to sniff out the finest truffles make them an invaluable asset, expensive as puppies and even more so when trained.
Truffle hunting in Piedmonte
Every trifolao (truffle hunter) has his jealously-guarded secrets. A trifolao with a good area of forest and a skilled dog is at the top of the game. Amateurs and hikers could try to look for the little treasures themselves by spotting flies hovering at the base of a host tree, but nothing compares to the lagotto romagnolo’s capability of unearthing mature truffles at the right place, at the right time. A timely harvest guarantees the most lucrative product.
After each harvest, it can take up to several years for the tubers to grow back. The lengthy growth time, the specificity of the place of origin and a labour-intensive harvest process are some of the reasons why truffles cost so much.
Generally speaking, black truffles have a lighter scent, with hints of green herbs, moss and earth, easy to pair with many food preparations, while white truffles have a more robust smell that is almost leathery, best accompanied by richer dishes such as meat, egg, pasta, pâtés, salmon and so on. The pungent smell of a freshly-harvested mature white truffle can quickly fill a crowded room. Its happy marriage with pasta and risotto always makes truffle lovers giddy with enjoyment.
What wine should you choose with a white truffle? It’s not a question of price, but there is no doubt that it has to be a muscular wine with a very long finish that can hold its own with the olfactory power of the truffle. Considering Italian labels, examples could be a good Barolo or Barbaresco, or a Brunello. If you prefer white, it would have to be a well-structured vintage, such as a Chardonnay aged in barrique. Salute!
Alba White Truffle Fair
Running from 11 October to 15 November 2015, the 85th International Alba White Truffle Fair is a compendium of folklore, culture, cuisine, show-cooking, workshops, and the White Truffle Market. Local truffle hunters and vendors will be offering their prized finds, alongside wineries from the Langhe and Roero districts, as well as local confectionery, cheese, fresh pastas and cured meat producers – at what might possibly be the world's smelliest fair ever.
Related: Truffle hunting in Alba, Piedmont
You can savour truffles at Tartufi&Friends, with branches in Milan, Rome and London. The sophisticated restaurant and counter venues are open all day for everything from coffee, lunch, happy hour, dinner and every sumptuous bite in between. Offering seasonal dishes in a menu that changes four times a year, this is an unmissable venue for those with a real passion for truffles.
Tartufi & Friends
How to preserve fresh truffles
Wrap your truffles in a piece of paper towel, put them into an air-tight glass jar and keep them in the refrigerator at five to six degrees Celsius for up to six or seven days. The paper has to be changed every 24 hours.
See map below for our pick of the best truffle restaurants in Turin and Milan and Rome.