The term “truffle” as commonly used refers to members of the genera Tuber and Terfezia. There are many other kinds of subterranean fungi, “false truffles,” which outwardly resemble the ones we eat. They are far more common than the truffles that are collected for food, and some are poisonous.
Truffles are round, warty, and irregular in shape and vary from the size of a walnut to that of a man’s fist. The season for most truffles falls between September and May.
The mention of truffles conjures up images of the renowned odorous white truffle (Tuber magnatum) of Alba, in the Piedmont district of Italy.
Autumn has always been the richest season for the Langhe, land of Barolo wine and of truffles, and of well-cultivated vineyards. After the grapes have been harvested the farmers go hunting for truffles. The Barolo wine does not betray, and goes perfectly with specialties such as “taiarin,” narrow tagliatelle enriched with aromatic truffles.
As truffles grow under the earth, they are located using the sensitive noses of specially-trained dogs, who carefully dig them up with their paws. These dogs are referred to by the Piedmontese as “tabui”, which strangely enough means “bastards.”.
From twilight until deep into the night, when the contours of the hills of the towns of Langhe, Roero, Monregalese, and Monferrato are blurred by the autumnal fog and the cold is beginning to bite, a few men set out in the company of their trusted dogs to follow imaginary routes that have been jealously guarded in their memories, passing over gorges and hills, in what has become a pilgrimage among poplar and linden trees and deep into the forests of oak and willow.
Thus begins the search for the unique white truffles of the Piedmont region that takes place each year from September to December, when truffles-hunters – locally knows as trifolau – unleash their dogs in what is a thrilling and fascinating contest that will be the subject of stories in the local inns throughout the winter months.
For centuries, the truffle was believed to grow wherever lightning struck, the Greeks and Romans considered it to be an excellent aphrodisiac and Emperor Charles V is said to have enjoyed one during a memorable dinner in Alba in 1537. Rossini, a truffle connoisseur, called the white truffle “the Mozart of mushrooms,” while Byron kept one on his desk to stimulate his creativity. More recently, Rita Hayworth and Winston Churchill are among those who have sung its praises as well as gourmets around the world who appreciate the unique nature of this rare variety of truffles.
A bit of history of truffles
Since the times of the Greeks and Romans truffles have been used in Europe as delicacies, as aphrodisiacs, and as medicines. They are among the most expensive of the world’s natural foods, often commanding as much as $250 to $450 per pound.
In 1564, Dr. Alfonso Ciccarelli of Bevagna wrote a treatise entitled “DeTuberibus” dedicated to that most “scent”-ual of tubers, the truffle. The truffle’s physical character obviously fascinated Pliny, who referred to it as a “callous under the earth”. A Piedmontese chef by the name of Giacomo Morra is credited with having been first to put truffles on the table in recent times.
In 1825 Brillat-Savarin called the truffle “the diamond of the kitchen” and praised the truffle aphrodisiac powers. (Physiology of Taste Meditation vi). While the aphrodisiac characteristics of truffles have not been established, the truffle is still held in high esteem in colloquial French, northern Italian and Istrian Croatian cooking, and in international haute cuisine.
Black Truffles (Tartufi Nero d’Estate)
Thinly sliced black truffles in oil. These summer Piedmontese truffles are preserved in extra virgin olive oil. Use them to flavor egg or potato dishes in place of butter. We believe that truffles jarred at the peak of freshness retain their flavor better than when they are shipped or flown here in their whole form. With these jarred ones, you can indulge in one of Italy’s greatest treasures without blowing a hole in your budget.
Italian rice cultivation is concentrated in certain areas of the country, although it is consumed in various dishes throughout Italy. Carnaroli, considered one of the best Italian rice, is grown in the Piedmont region. Its excellent cooking qualities make it ideal for preparing risottos of the finest quality. Although less well known in the U.S. than Arborio rice, Carnaroli is actually more highly valued by Italian chefs. Try it in place of Arborio the next time you make risotto. You’ll be surprised by its super creaminess and recognize why Carnaroli is known as “The Caviar of Rice.”