Erratically sphere-shaped, and varying in sizes, truffles of more than a hundred varieties have been discovered worldwide. However, only a small percent fetch exorbitant prices on the international delicacy market. Wild truffles are found in Italy, France, Spain, Croatia, several Europe countries, North America, Australia, Asia and even the African desert. Cultivated truffles are also available in the marketplace.
The highest quality truffles are undeniably the wild white Piedmontese type from the Alba area in the Italian province of Cuneo. Scientifically known Tuber Magnatum Pico, this beige-coloured, lumpy, woody-looking fungus releases a pungent and powerful scent – a combination of earthy, woody and aged cheese aroma. The flesh (or gleba) varies from white to yellowish-grey etched with thin white veins.
Second top choice would be the Italian and French wild black Perigord truffle. Characteristically, it has an exterior polygonal warty, black skin, and dark brown to almost black gleba etched with delicate white veins.
Foraging for the Hidden Treasure
Elusive and Rare as Hidden Treasure – wild truffles grow deep in the soil among the roots of leafy trees like oak, poplar, willows as well as lime and hazelnut bushes. The more hardy the tree wood – the more intense the truffle’s scent and, hence, its flavour. The best harvesting ground is around the damp Langhe forests in Northern Italy, where truffles thrive symbiotically with tree roots. Truffle hunting is done mostly by dogs with their hunters — licenced trifulaos. Pigs are also used, but they tend to eat the truffles once unearthed. Truffle hunting is dependent on soil and weather condition.
The Culinary Diamond – A Lady’s Best Friend
Like caviars, truffles are luxurious and prized gourmet delights. Eighteenth century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin called the truffle “the diamond of the kitchen”.
Depending on the quality and supply, a kilogram of Italian white truffles can be priced as high as USD5,000. They are available between September to December. Every October, culinary professionals and connoisseurs, tycoons and celebrities from around the world converge at the annual White Truffle Festival in Alba to bid and purchase the world’s best white truffles (tartufo bianco). The record price paid for truffles so far is held by casino tycoon, Stanley Ho who paid US$330,000 for two Italian white truffles in 2010.
Compared to white truffles, black truffles are more abundant and less expensive globally. There are two to three types that grow in Piedmont, Italy. The most prized is the winter black or Perigord truffle (Tuber melanosporum vitt) which grow primarily under the oak tree — and fetch up to US$1,400 per kilogram in local farmers’ markets and even higher at retail stores. Nicknamed the ‘black diamond’ or Queen of Truffles, it has an intense, fruity fragrance and is available from December to March. Perigord truffles also grow in France and Spain.
The Italian summer black truffle (Tuber aestivum vitt) season is from May to September. Summer truffles are larger and tougher than the Perigord truffles. They have a smoother black exterior and a white coloured gleba — releases a subtle aroma — goes well with salads and makes a good flavouring ingredient for soups and sauces.
At a lower price tag is the Bianchetto (Tuber Borchii vitt) or Marzuolo truffle. In Piedmont, it flourishes abundantly in limestone soil among deciduous and conifers. The truffle’s exterior resembles the Tuber Magnatum Pico with irregular, smooth, beige coloured skin — but when ripens, the surface turns darker, so does the gleba — and texture-wise, it’s soft and pleasant at maturity state, but produces a garlicky aroma as it ages. Harvesting season is from January to March.
Beware of Counterfeits
The existence of this wild species is now endangered by the Chinese black truffle (Tuber sinensis or Tuber indicum) — a close relative and an aggressive species that resembles the Perigord truffle, but has very little or no flavour. According to University of Turin (Italy) fungus expert, Claude Murat, he and his team of scientists fear the infesting Chinese truffle found thriving in European soils will eliminate its valued European relative — and even interbreed and replace the Perigord with a hybrid. Thankfully there is a solution to protecting the species.
In a news release by the British Journal Nature, a tri-nation group (France, Italy and Spain) of geneticists at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research – has developed a DNA signature that will identify the geographical origin of the prized black Perigord truffles – a feat that could curb unscrupulous vendors from passing off inferior truffles as the real product.
So buyers beware, don’t be conned, and spend a fortune on a truffle that is just a mushroom saturated with truffle juice or injected with extracts from the real Tuber melanosporum vitt.
Purchase only from a reputable source! The Alba White Truffle Market is the only place where every truffle is certified for its quality and type.
To learn more about truffles, watch VIDEO presentation by Chef Carlo Zarri.