Italian chefs live by the season. Every season signifies a change of the menu which reflects the produce found during each time period. For many chefs, October in Italy means truffle season. Truffles, or tartufi, date back to the times of the Greeks and Romans and were historically perceived as delicacies, and used as aphrodisiacs and medicines.
Truffle is a word commonly used to describe members of the Tuber and Terfezia families,
which are round, warty and irregular in shape. Their dimension typically varies from the size of a walnut to the size of a softball. But what exactly is a truffle? Truffles are a type of fungi that grows underground in association with certain trees. It’s hard to describe a truffle without the experience of smelling a truffle, as its flavor is most commonly associated with its aroma. It is thanks to this aroma that the truffle can be harvested, as the odor develops only when the truffle is ready to be harvested.
Truffle harvesting becomes an annual event in many countries, especially Italy. Animals such as pigs and dogs are enlisted to search out these little treasures; however, much care and effort is dedicated to harvesting these delicacies. Having the wrong ‘harvester’ can lead to a significant financial loss if the truffles gets eaten by the animal enlisted in the dig. Dogs are meticulously trained to seek out the aroma. They are taught to dig into the ground to uncover the truffle and surrender the delicacy for a more appealing treat. During the training process, trainers have their dogs repeatedly retrieve a ball, turned smelly cheese, turned truffle. Truffle-finding skill is cumulative and generally the oldest and most experienced truffle dogs tend to be the most productive.
Italy is a breeding ground for seven different species of truffles that are collected and harvested each year. Truffles are found in white and black varieties. Black truffles are less pungent than the white varieties, which are generally served uncooked or shaved over a dish. Because of their high price and strong flavors, truffles are served in sparing amounts. And due to their rarity and difficulty to harvest, truffles are quite expensive. The world’s most expensive truffle was a two pound, ten ounce rare White Alba truffle that was the size of a small handbag. That truffle sold for 95,000 euros or approximately $120,500.
Primarily limited to Italy, white truffles make the country famous, and the Tuber magnatum, or tartufo bianco (also known as tartufo d’Alba), is the most well-known. Alba, in the Piemonte region, hosts one of the largest celebrations of the truffle harvest, with fairs, special truffle hunts and tastings during the months of October and November. Another annual truffle celebration takes place just on the outskirts of Florence in San Miniato, a town which produces about 25 percent of the white truffle crop in Italy and holds, during the last three weeks of November, a gastronomic celebration of the precious white truffle. Like Alba, the San Miniato festivities include demonstrations, tastings and hunts for the town’s prized possession.
The truffle season brings a variety of treats that undoubtedly delight the truffle lover. The fungus is generally scraped or grated into sauces or atop dishes, most commonly pastas and risottos, just prior to consumption. The pungent treat is also found in cheeses, oils, butters and sauces.
Still not convinced this delicacy is for you? All you have to do is try it—many become hooked. Walking through the streets of Florence during the fall months, you will often see daily specials including both white and black truffles, tartufo bianco or tartufo nero, respectively, and this is your chance to experience the wonderful aroma and flavor of this native delicacy known throughout the world.