TIS THE SEASON FOR CULINARY INDULGENCE - ITALY’S WHITE TRUFFLES
They are a famously luxurious and expensive culinary indulgence and this years unusually wet summer in Italy has been beneficial for the pungent truffle which grow hidden at the base of oak, beech and hazel trees.
Whilst certainly nothing to look at, the white truffles of Italy are highly prized and the most valuable in the market. The aroma will set your tastebuds tingling. The first harvest has been decidedly better than those of the past few years following the warm autumn making Italy's prized white truffles more affordable this year according to the market stall vendors.
Specially-trained dogs have been digging up a record haul of the elusive fungi, emerging from the damp leaf litter of the forest floor, with the most dedicated truffle hunters keeping their best spots a closely guarded secret and looking forward to celebrating what could be one of the best harvests in recent years.
White truffles are rarer and more expensive than black truffles, this season selling for around €2,000 a kilogram, down from €3,500 last year and an eye-watering €5,000 in 2012.
The white variety or "tartufo bianco" to give it its Italian name, are mostly found in the woods and fields of the Piedmont region in the north of Italy with the towns of Alba and Asti particularly famous for the delicacy. Areas within the hills of Tuscany also produce large quantities of the aromatic tuber which were celebrated by Plutarch and Cicero in Roman times and have been much sought after by gourmands ever since. While the white truffles of Piedmont are particularly prized, black truffles are found in most parts of the country with the central region of Umbria accounting for around 30 per cent of total production.
The bumper harvest this year will be celebrated at the International Truffle Fair in Alba which starts in autumn, continuing until mid November where visitors can take part in tastings and cooking demonstrations. Many other towns and villages also hold their own truffle fairs and festivals. There are an estimated 200,000 regular truffle gatherers in Italy, with the sector worth around €400 million a year. The record price for a single white truffle was set in 2007 for a specimen weighing in at 1.5kg discovered by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco. One of the largest truffles found in decades it was unearthed near Pisa and sold at auction held simultaneously in Macau and Florence.
Pigs have been banned since 1985 in Italy for sniffing out truffles due to the environmental damage they cause. The Lagotto Romagnolo is currently the only dog breed recognised for sniffing out truffles (although any breed could be trained for this purpose).
Make your own truffle oil. Select a good tasting olive oil and simply add a small sliced truffle. The aroma and flavor will infuse the oil and enhance many simple dishes, or brush slices of bread and lightly toast to accompany tasty dips for a special treat.
Truffle shavers may be found in speciality kitchen stores for the finest of slicing.
White truffles are generally served raw or shaved over steaming buttered pasta and salads. White or black paper thin truffle slices may be inserted into meats under the skins of roasted chicken, in foie gras preparations, pates and stuffings and will add an entirely new dimension to your festive season celebrations.
Whilst truffles fruit throughout the year, depending on the species, the prime time for harvesting is from September to November. Consider next year adding some extra time in Italy before returning home from Classic Italy Coast to Coast tour (1-22 September 2016) or Elegant Italy & France at Leisure (28 Sept to 19 October 2016) and be sure to make time to attend one of the many truffle fairs held throughout the country.
How to prepare fresh truffles
First be gentle with them, no hot water or harsh scrubbing, just wipe any remaining dirt off with a moist cloth. If not planning to use them for several days (once dry) they may be stored in a container of rice which allows the aroma to permeate the rice (perfect for risotto). This is the classic Italian way of storing them and they can then be used for any dish. Black truffles may be used to cook with however many consider the white truffles best shaved or shredded and can be sprinkled over a bland dish e.g. pasta, scrambled eggs or for a special occasion refer to the article and recipe for Tournedos Rossini. Simply delicious!