Story by Rupert Titchmarsh
A ban on hunting with dogs? Not in Italy. At this time of year, in the woods of Northern and Central Italy, dogs and even pigs are engaged in the relentless pursuit of their goals. This process is not as dramatic or bloody as it may seem however, for here the quarry is a sedentary, unprepossessing fungus to wit the truffle.
Just the mention of the word truffle is enough to send gourmets the world over into a state of heightened anticipation not to say quivering delight. But why does no other foodstuff carry the same mystique or kudos and why will otherwise sensible people be prepared to pay upwards of Â£100 for a dish of them?
First a little background. Truffles are tubers. They grow underground on the root systems of favoured tree species. Unlike other fungi however, the fruiting bodies of tubers exist under three inches to three feet of topsoil. It is because of their subterranean existence, that pigs and dogs are needed to sniff them out. It is thought that the attraction to truffles for dogs and especially pigs, is related to sex pheromones. These days dogs are far more commonly used, principally because a 350lb sow in a state of sexual arousal is difficult to restrain and will often summarily scoff the prize before it can be safely pocketed by the truffle hunter or ‘Trifolau’ as they are known.
There are around fifty species of truffles found in places including China, Syria, Italy and the U.K. Black truffles have been found in the woodlands of England, the precise location of which is jealously guarded and although they lack the pungency of their Latin cousins they have a delicate flavour that is very pleasing. For gastronomic purists the finest truffles are found in Mediterranean areas. There are two species more sought after than the others. The first is the black winter truffle (Tuber Melanosporum), known in Italy as the Norcia truffle and in France as the Perigord truffle. The season for this species is December 1st – March 15th. The second and most prized of all is the ‘Diamond of the Kitchen’ the white winter truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico) available 1st October – 31st December. This truffle is known as the Alba truffle and it is in Alba, a town in Piedmont, where the annual auctions take place throughout October, with prices normally around Â£1,600 – Â£2,500 a kg.
Night time is considered the best time to hunt for truffles the reasons given to me for this were myriad and diverse, the only one of which rang true was so it could be kept secret from rival trifolau. The knowledge of the whereabouts of prime truffle areas are extremely valuable and are often only passed on from father to son. It is a very cut-throat business and underhand methods are regularly used to gain an advantage. The poisoning or even kidnapping of effective and coveted truffle hounds is fairly commonplace. It was therefore, with no small amount of trepidation that I accepted an invitation to join the hunt.
My own experience as a Trifolau, was a sobering and mildly bemusing experience. We set out from a town called Norcia in the Umbrian Appennines on a bitterly cold and wet evening. I was deemed to be enough of a threat to the trifolau’s livelihood to find myself in the back of a small van with three dogs and no windows. A mercifully short and very bumpy drive later we arrived at our destination. After an extremely large glass of grappa had been unwillingly consumed the hunt began. I wish I could say that finding truffles gave even a fraction as much pleasure as eating them but six hours of scrambling up and down heavily wooded gullies yielded only two melanosporum truffles and a severe cold. All the hard work was amply rewarded when for breakfast we dined on a simple omelette liberally laced with truffle washed down with more grappa.
The white truffle has a scent unlike anything else in the world. It is an impossible task to describe the flavour fully, but there are earthy tones combined with a hint of garlic. It has a very strong flavour and should be served as simply as possible to avoid clashing with other ingredients. The white truffle should never be cooked just added at the final stages of the preparation of the dish. Generally butter is a better base for truffle than olive oils. I especially like white truffles served with omelettes, shaved over pasta, risottos and perhaps best of all, with scrambled egg.
So are they worth it? In my experience most definitely. Â£50 to Â£70 will buy a good sized truffle, enough to feed 4 to 6 people for a main course. Whether you love them or not, eating fresh truffles will prove to be an unforgettable experience.
About the author: Rupert Titchmarsh used to work for Northfields meat suppliers – an institution at London’s famous Borough Market. He loves everything about food including cooking, growing your own, truffle foraging and raising pigs.