When you think of a truffle, thoughts of chocolate treats may come to mind. While we have no problem promoting these delicacies, we’re talking about a truffle of a different color. Truffles are synonymous with the fine dining world, and Harwigs is lucky enough to bring in the best in the world – the White Alba Truffle. So what makes them so great? Francesca Bezzone from Life In Italy explains:
TRUFFLES: WHAT ARE THEY?!
Alas… truffles are mushrooms. Yes, they are underground growing mushrooms, belonging to the the Ascomycetes class of the Tuberaceae family. They grow under trees or, to be more precise, on their roots, from which they gain nutrition. Truffles have different characteristics not only depending on their typology (white or black) and variety (the black truffle family is particularly large), but also on the type of soil they grew into and the plant they associate with.
WHITE TRUFFLES: SEARCHING THEM
In Piemonte, the “trifolao” searches with the aid of specially trained dogs. Mongrels are said to be better than pure breed, but if it is a pure breed you want, then make sure it is a hunting dog. If puppies come from a line of good truffle searching dogs, there are good chances they will be, too. My dad always told me she-dogs are better searchers than males and I think this is a pretty commonly believed thing among “trifolai;” transforming a dog into a good truffle searching dog takes training and time, even when they have good genes. Some “trifolai” are also good at turning dogs into perfect searchers, just as my dad used to do. I remember him doing it, actually.
Dogs start their training young: the trick is to use something with a strong, pungent smell and flavor like mature cheese or gorgonzola, let the dog sniff it and then hide it in places more and more difficult to find, treating it as a playing session. Once the dog gets used to the search, the most important part of the training begins: the “trifolao” switches the cheese with small black truffles and, after a bunch of hit and misses, les jeux sont faits. My dad always says the reason dogs learn it and love searching truffles is, ultimately, because they want to eat them, so it is essential to keep close to the dog while they search and dig, or you may be left with nothing but a few truffle crumbles to bring home! Because of this, it is absolutely paramount to bring dog treats with you when you go truffle searching: in the end, dogs do most of the job, and it would not be fair to leave them empty handed!
Where to look
Truffles are a serious business: even if you search them only for personal pleasure and your findings are mostly enjoyed by family and friends, you have to keep in mind what you bring home is quite literally worth its weight in gold. Many “trifolai” search to sell and things get pretty serious then. Finding the best spot to search is essential and, if usually “trifolai” know the areas where truffles grow each year in larger quantities, it is not uncommon for them to explore new places and keep them more or less secret, should they hide a rich bounty. This is among the reasons why truffle searching often takes place at night or in the early hours of the morning.
Each “trifolao” knows truffles grow in symbiosis with trees, but not all trees are good, of course. The best are those belonging to the oak family: English oak is down handedly the best symbion for high quality white truffles, along with holm oaks. Of course, truffles grow under other trees, too: turkey oaks, chestnut trees, pines, hazelnut trees are only some among various truffle bearing trees out there.
“Trifolai” are not only knowledgeable about where to find truffles and recognizing the best among them from the mediocre, they are also aware truffle searching is regulated by specific rules, and we’re not only and exclusively talking about the law (more on this in just a moment). The first and foremost truffle searching rule is “be kind to nature and respect her life cycle:” after you got your mits on that truffle, cover up the hole as only like this new truffles will have the opportunity to grow, keeping nature’s work active throughout the seasons.
The legality of it all
I don’t know if any of you would actually consider moving to Italy to become a “trifolao,” even though I must admit there is a certain implicit romanticism in the idea, but it may be handy to know that, in order to truffle search, you have to hold a specific permit, released by the province of competence. In the province of Cuneo, where I am from, each aspiring “trifolao” has to pass a suitability exam; if all goes well, he will be issued a 10 year, renewable permit.
One last thing: prices. Truffles are expensive, but this does not mean you cannot treat yourself once in a while. Keep in mind white truffles are considerably more expensive than black, but black truffles are often easier to come about outside truffle-growing regions. Prices are per 100 gr, but usually people buy truffle in 20 gr parts. Season this year has just started, so prices are not quite available yet, but last Fall white truffle ranged, according to Tuber.it, the Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufo‘s portal, between 200 and 250 euro (225 and 281 USD) per 100 gr.
But oh… that will be well spent money!
White truffle from Piemonte: A Fall Italian treasure