Ah the infamous tartufo. Truffles in Italy are ubiquitous with autumn in Italy. It’s shaved over just about anything this time of year, listed on menus throughout Italy and even celebrated in the White Truffle Festival of Alba in October and November.
I happen to love truffles, and I’m not the only one. Throughout the world these strange root-like mushrooms are celebrated, revered and sold at astronomical prices. It’s the western hemisphere’s shark fin soup (minus the environmental downsides).
If you’ve been to Italy, in particular central Italy or Piedmont in the northwest, you’ve probably found the word truffle on a menu or two.
It’s one of the most confusing foods in all of Italy and even more so if you’ve never tried it. And now that fall is in full swing and the white truffle and black winter truffle are filling sagre and restaurants, it’s time to ask: what’s the deal with truffles in Italy?
What is a truffle anyway?
Is it a tuber? A root? A mushroom?
It is technically a “tube mushroom” and if you don’t know what that means you’re not alone. It grows underground like a tuber but is actually a mushroom without a cap or stem. It’s a subterranean fungus whose coarse, gnarly body isn’t unlike a root.
Not drooling yet? I understand. But just know this: truffles have been a luxury food item since at least the ancient Romans, if not earlier. Pharaohs in Egypt ate the aromatic ingredient and later the French court tried to cultivate the pungent delicacies.
Many people – me included – adore truffles, but even I can admit that they’re not your average taste, or smell! Not everyone loves them. In fact, most people either absolutely love them, or are completely disgusted by the strong smell and taste. Some say there’s a smell of gas, of wet earth or cracked peppercorn, depending on the type. They add a hit of flavor to any dish with just a few shavings and can flavor your breath like garlic. But for those who like decisive flavors and foraged foods (think herbs, game, cheeses) you’ll dream about truffle season all year after your first try.
Where can I find truffles?
Like mushrooms, truffles grow in proximity and symbiosis of specific tree roots. They grow anywhere from 5 to 30 cm underground and are usually found by highly trained dogs who know how to find the strange ingredient and dig it up properly, though there are some who use pigs and their incredible sense of smell to find them.
They grow naturally in some European countries like France and a bit in Croatia and in Italy in Piedmont, Tuscany, Le Marche and Umbria and…that’s about it. In fact Italy is one of the largest truffle producers and exporters in the world and Italian truffles are a favorite on the market. Get them in season from most Italian restaurants in these truffle-growing regions and size up the joint before ordering them beyond these areas.
For whatever reasons, scientists and botanists haven’t been able to grow them in a lab, so today the woods are still full of truffle hunters combing the forest floor for the pricey treats. And pricey they are! Truffles grow in a limited area in the world, can’t be made in a lab and are hard to find. Some, like the white truffle from Alba, are so prized and rare that they can sell for nearly $200 per ounce.
Are there different types of truffles in Italy?
Apparently there are dozens of different types of truffles, but in Italy, there are really only two worth mentioning: The tartufo nero di Norcia and the tartufo bianco d’Alba, though both can be found even beyond that specific locale.
White truffles in Italy are found only in Piedmont, more specifically in the fertile Langhe area (where all that good wine is grown!), and are in-season from late September through December.
They are a light brown with a white marbling and though the smell could fill a room, they’re one of the most delicate varieties of truffles. Delicious, rare, hard-to-find and highly perishable (truffles remain fresh for only a few short days) this is the epitome of culinary indulgence that’s still available for all … in Italy that is. White truffles are expensive, don’t buy them exported at even higher prices. They should be eaten as fresh as humanly possible and even better if it’s in a rich local Italian dish!
Read: The Food of Piedmont
The second type of truffles are the black truffles. Though there are different types of black truffles, like with their white varieties, the most valuable type is the winter black truffle, in season from November to March.
Grown throughout central Italy and much easier to keep fresh, these are the most common truffles that you’ll find gracing Italian menus, but nonetheless, be sure to order them in truffle-growing areas and in the right season! Known as the sweet black truffle or the Norcia truffle or the tartufo nero pregiato they are blackish-brown and veins that turn brown as they age. Slightly peppery, I like these truffles even with meat.
In Italy, you might find truffles as a menu option that, well, isn’t exactly made with truffles. Generally titled “tartufato” in Italian, or “truffled,” it’s usually olive oil infused with truffles. This can be good if you simply like the truffle flavor, but be careful, it can also be shit sold at truffle prices. Anytime you order truffles in Italy that aren’t shaved on to your plate, there’s a good chance that it’s been made with truffle oil.
Like all mushrooms, truffles are a bit mysterious and made even more glamorous by their high price tag, but they’re simply an ingredient that deserves a try. If you pride yourself on eating local, experiencing a culture through its cuisine and giving anything a try once, you can’t miss out on truffles during autumn in Italy!