Nature is really prodigious. Every living thing on earth strives to survive and reproduce, and truffle is no exception. Its intense and unmistakable fragrance is nothing but an expedient to be detected and dug up by humans and animals, in order for its spores to be spread around. The spores will be absorbed by the ground and will reach the roots of a host tree (usually an oak or ilex), with which the new truffle will symbiotically live from then on, feeding on the decomposition of organic matter. Tradition tells that the very first truffle originated from a bolt of lightning thrown by Zeus near an oak, the tree sacred to this God; hence the attribution of aphrodisiac properties to this mushroom, as Zeus was famous for his sexual vigor.
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History of Truffles
Since the dawn of time, truffle has been considered as a valuable food because of its intense aroma and its captivating taste. In Europe, the first evidence is reported in Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). The ancient Romans appreciated the culinary use of terrae tuber they had been handed down by the Etruscan. The Greeks were also fascinated by this mysterious fruit, that they dedicated to Venus. The impossibility to establish with certainty its origin caused the misfortune of truffle during the Middle Ages when it was considered the food of witches and devil.
It reappears on the Renaissance tables of Caterina de’ Medici and Lucrezia Borgia, just to name two representatives of the European nobility who were fond of truffle. In 1500 it is listed among mushrooms for the first time; 700 France and Italy are the countries where the precious tuber is most appreciated and looking for truffles has become an amusement at the nobles’ palaces like fox hunting at the British courts.
What is a truffle?
Truffle is not only an extraordinary food, it also has very interesting nutritional values: it is rich in antioxidants (because it contains vitamin C), it stimulates the production of collagen, helps digestion and contains noble proteins. Without at all forgetting the benefits from Zeus…
Edible truffles are classified into 9 different species, the most common in Italy are 6:
- Fine white truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico): Collected between September and December, this is the biggest and most precious among truffles. It is extremely aromatic, and usually eaten raw, finely sliced on various dishes like eggs, rice, meat, in perfect combination with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Bianchetto truffle (Tuber Borchii Vitt or Tuber Albidum Pico): It is collected between January and April. It is similar to the main white truffle, though not that precious and perfumed.
- Fine black truffle (Tuber Melanosporum Vitt.): This winter truffle is collected between December and March, it is black/purple inside and usually roundish. Its fantastic taste comes out when cooked and used to garnish dishes, in ideal combination with extra virgin olive oil. Its characteristics are exalted when used for risotto, as filling ingredient for game, first courses, omelets, veal, croutons.
- Black summer truffle or Scorzone (Tuber Aestivum Vitt.): It is collected between June and August and has irregular size and shape, with a delicate smell. It is used sliced or grated, cooked with other mushrooms and olive oil, for game dishes, risotto, fillings, and so on.
- “Hooked” black truffle (Tuber Aestivum Uncinatum Chatin): Collected between October and December, it is similar to the previous one.
- Tuber Brumale Moschatum De Ferry: Also very similar to the other black less precious truffles, it is collected between January and March.
The most important areas in Italy for white and black truffle are in Piedmont (Alba), Lombardia (Isola Boscone), Emilia Romagna (Piacenza), Tuscany (San Miniato), Umbria (Norcia), Marche (Acqualagna), Abruzzi (Ateleta, Quadri), Molise. Black truffle is also found in Campania, Calabria, Basilicata, and Sicily.
If you are going to get the help of a pig, it will certainly sniff out any kind of truffle hidden in the soil, but with the same facility it will eat it. Pigs have a voracious appetite for truffles. Moreover, they make a big mess of the soil while digging out the treasure, that is why using pigs for truffle hunting in Italy is both illegal and pointless. In France, especially in the regions of Lot and Périgord, they still use purposely trained pigs, while in Italy they use mixed-breed dogs. The most suitable dog breeds for truffle hunting are Pointer, Bracco, Setter, Epagneul Breton or Cocker Spaniel, depending on the morphology of the ground, or “lagotto Romagnolo”, the only breed officially specialized for truffle hunting. No matter what breed, the dog should be clever, easily trainable, able to run around searching after its prey for hours and hours, should have spirit of initiative and be able to focus on that one particular smell, without getting distracted by the multitude of scents in the woods. Certainly, the long training process and the fatigue of hunting, which the dog must feel like a play, create a strong relationship between man and hound.
Where to eat the best truffles
You won’t be surprised that truffles are nearly as expensive as diamonds; the best ones can reach the peak price of €450,00 each hectogram! A truffle fair is the right place to eat and buy truffle without paying an arm and a leg. Here are some of the most relevant appointments for the 2019 season, not to be missed:
Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco di Alba – held from November 5 to 24 in Alba (Piedmont)
National White Truffle Fair – from November 9 to 24 – San Miniato (Tuscany)
XXXIV Mostra Mercato del Tartufo Bianco delle Crete Senesi – November 9/10 and 16/17 – S. Giovanni d’Asso (Tuscany)
Mostra Mercato Nazionale del Tartufo di Valtopina 2019 – November 16/17 and 23/24 Valtopina (Umbria)
54° Fiera Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco di Acqualagna – October 27 – November 1/2/3/9/10 – Acqualagna (Marche)
3535° Fiera del Tartufo Bianco di Sant’Agata Feltria – October 6/13/20/27 – Sant’Agata Feltria (Emilia Romagna)
55° Mostra del Tartufo Bianco – October 12/13 – 18/19/20 – 26/27 – November 2 and 3 – Sant’Angelo in Vado (Marche)
Appointments you have missed for this year, that you can plan in 2020:
Nero Norcia 2019 – National Truffle Market in Norcia (Umbria)- held in February and March
Volterragusto – held in March in Volterra (Tuscany)
If you are eager to learn more, on your next tour to Italy you can visit one of the several museums dedicated to truffle:
- Museo del Tartufo Urbani
- Museo del Tartufo di Alba
- Museo del Tartufo San Giovanni d’Asso
- Museo del Tartufo di Acqualagna