Truffle hunting: an intense, risky treasure quest requiring skill and instinct, traditionally shared by both Italian men and wild female pigs. (For culinary enjoyment and out of mistaken identity during mating season, respectively). Upon unearthing these treasures, the truffle hunter can sell each truffle for approximately 250 euros per 100 grams in Italy. In 2006, a wealthy businessman from Hong Kong purchased the most expensive truffle in the world at $160,406– an Italian white truffle weighing in at 3.3 pounds. Truffles are prized for their strong, unique flavor that infuse naturally with other ingredients and enhance any dish. They require several years to grow undisturbed in the root systems of oak, pine, or beech trees, before they are found by trained truffle hunting dogs that can also cost several thousand dollars. Truffles were traditionally hunted by wild female pigs who confused the strong scent for that of a boar. But because pigs are essentially un-trainable, dangerous, and end up destroying many delicate root systems, dogs make much better truffle-hunting companions.
During my Bologna market tour, I visited a specialty store that sold fresh white truffles. As soon as the store owner opened one plastic bin filled with fresh white truffles, its overwhelming garlicky, earthy scent filled the room. So… they’re not the most beautiful of ingredients, but one little truffle shaving can definitely pack a flavorful punch. We were told that one tiny piece (about 30 euros) goes a long way, as a very small amount can be thinly shaved and used in a variety of pasta and risotto dishes, or as a garnish on antipasti.
Aside from the fall white truffles that are available at the moment, there are also summer white truffles, as well as summer and fall black truffles. These truffles have subtle differences in aroma, flavor, and are prepared differently– black truffles are better when they are cooked with other ingredients, while white truffles adorn a dish that has already been prepared.
Depending on where the truffle originated, it is important to simulate either a moist or dry environment. The white truffles at the store came from a more moist environment, so they were kept in moist paper towels, and then in the plastic bin. They only stay fresh for a few days, so it is best to use them immediately upon purchase. If you don’t have 250 euros readily available for a giant truffle, then you can also get truffles in other forms such as truffle oil, or preserved truffle. However you have to make sure to look at the label and see that actual truffles are used in the product, because truffle oil is often just olive oil that is artificially flavored with a truffle-like fragrance.
Local Truffle Dishes
Here in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, white truffle is used in many simple but incredibly delicious dishes. In fact, truffles change the whole dish in terms of flavor AND in price. Restaurants often make eating white truffles a special experience. Around November, many of them start posting excited signs like, “The truffles are here!!!!”, “Hooray!! Truffles!!!”. And at some places, ordering a truffle dish can attract attention like having waiters bring your food out on a big sizzling platter with its own sizzling platter stand, or lighting your entire dessert on fire… they bring out a jar with fresh truffles inside and when they open it up, the strong scent fills the area. The waiter brings out the mandolin and shaves truffles by-hand on top of your dish.
White truffles are kind of fleshy-colored when they are cut, and are mixed with your food. Because truffles are the highlight, not many other ingredients are necessary. Just in time for our Thanksgiving meal in Italy, we had fresh tagliolini egg pasta with butter, covered with truffles…family-sized portions, of course…
This was one momentous occasion where I took one bite, put my fork down, stopped and said, “Wow, really? Where the have I been??” (though kind of like the moment when I had my first amazing gelato in Bologna and stopped in the street, but that is another story to come…)
And another special was a fresh egg, perfectly cooked and served in a small pan. Covered in truffles, of course. For some reason, the truffles worked amazingly with the egg and runny yolks, and had a different effect than on the pasta.
I’m going to have to do some truffle treasure quest-ing of my own when I get back to D.C., though mostly involving the safe, indoor kind. Any thoughts on where I might be able to get my hands on some would be greatly appreciated. 🙂