WHITE ALBA TRUFFLES
White Truffles are subterranean tubers (species tuber magnatum). Often referred to as a Piedmont or Alba Truffle, White Alba Truffles, known as trifola d’Alba Madonna (“Truffle of the Madonna”) famously grow in the countryside around the cities of ALBA ad ASTI in Northern Italy.
HOW DO TRUFFLES GROW?
White Truffles grow a few inches underground in chalky, calcium-rich soils near the roots of broad-leaf trees such as hazelnut, poplar, linden, chestnut, hornbeam, or oak trees. They are often mistaken for a mushroom because they are both fungi, and like a typical fungus, the vegetative part lives underground all year- the difference is that during the fruiting season, the fruiting body of a mushroom grows above the surface, while the fruiting body of a truffle grows below the surface.
Truffles have a symbiotic relationship with their host trees because they are subterranean and unable to photosynthesize, they rely on their host trees for survival- to carry out this process for them. Attached to their roots – the truffles help the host trees by processing nutrients, like phosphorous, from the soil. In return, the tree roots secrete sugars (glucose) into the truffles. As the tree grows- the truffles grow.
From a reproductive standpoint, truffles are distinct from other fungi because they can be male or female, and only sexually reproduce; they cannot self-fertilize, nor reproduce asexually like other fungi. To compound things, truffles are subterranean and tend to be isolated in single-sex colonies that are often several meters apart from the next colony. In addition, unlike typical fungi that use the winds to aid in the dispersion of spores; there is no wind underground. So how do they reproduce? Truffles have evolved and use animals to disperse their spores. Truffles secrete a scent that attracts fungivores (animals that like to eat fungi), dig them up, consume them, and eventually are dispersed through the animals’ feces in nearby areas. These fungivores vary based on geography and include smaller animals such as mice, squirrels, rabbits, rat-kangaroos, and even armadillos. Larger fungivores include bears, deer, baboons, wallabies (to name a few), and of course pigs- attracted to the truffle scent because it mimics the scent of their sex hormones. Ooh, la la!
White truffles are autumn truffles and the season runs from September to December and continues until the new year. When it comes time to harvest the truffles, farmers use trained dogs to sniff out these delectable edibles- known as truffle hunting, these professional truffle hunters have been raised specifically since they were pups- to detect the unique scent of truffles. Professional canine hunters will painstakingly go over the growing grounds, and once they are on the scent, they reveal the truffle location to their handlers, who carefully forage (dig) and remove the truffles from under the soil. They will gently clean the truffles, and provide a treat/reward to the dog for finding its prize.
Historically truffles were hunted by pigs (specifically sows); as the truffles contained the pheromone androstanol, a sex hormone also found in the saliva of male pigs. that was very much like a pig’s sex hormone. The pigs were very successful at sniffing out truffles, but the problem with using pigs was that they required keen attention; otherwise, they would dig up the truffle and eat them.
WHERE WHITE TRUFFLES GROW
White Truffles grow adjoining the roots of broad-leaf hazelnut, poplar, linden, chestnut, hornbeam, or oak trees. Traditionally white truffles were specific to the Mediterranean soil of Spain, France, and Italy; largely due to difficulty in cultivating them outside of their natural habitat.
Today, largely due to the incredible price they fetch, truffles are harvested and grown in concentrated areas, abounding with the right host trees, and calciferous rich soil- around the world:
- In the US- notably California, Idaho, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and the Pacific Northwest- Washington, Oregon
- New Zealand
- Canada- Vancouver Island, the Lower Fraser Valley, and in the Okanagan
- North Africa
- China- particularly in the Yunnan Province
- The Middle East
- Northern Thailand
Despite finding truffles growing around the world, there is a huge difference in taste, flavor, and marketability in the types of truffles harvested. In some places, the truffle species that do grow naturally are not widely used for consumption; and while commercial truffle production is global, the prized European species, such as Périgord black and Alba white, are notoriously particular and difficult to domesticate and grow commercially just anywhere. It would be like comparing apples to…well truffles. As a result, most truffle connoisseurs prefer to obtain their white truffles from Italy- especially where they grow wild in the forests around a small Piemontese township, known as Alba.
ITALIAN WHITE TRUFFLES
As mentioned, the Truffle (Tartufo in Italian) are highly sought after and much rarer compared to other truffle species. – White Truffles are mostly found in the Langhe and Montferrat areas in Northern Italy- notably in the Piemonte (Piedmont) region- as well as in the countryside around Tuscany, Molise, and Abruzzo. But in Piedmont, most famously around Alba and Asti. Ideally situated between the Po and Tanaro Rivers amidst the mountain ranges Apennine and Alps; White truffles grow deep in the fertile forests, with its clay-like soil, rich in calcium- perfect for truffles to grow large and robust amidst the roots of their host trees- oak, poplar and linden trees.
In Alba, Italy- known as the “White Truffle Capital of the World” Italians have been celebrating the truffle for generations, and it is home to the International Alba White Truffle Festival; where people from all over the world, gather to celebrate the Alba White Truffle- as they have been since the early 1920s when the fair originated thanks to Giacomo Morra (1889-1963) who introduced an exhibition dedicated to the famous white truffles of Alba. It has since become the premier, must-attend festival for truffle lovers the world over every October and November.
Dedicated to the Alba White Truffle, the International Alba White Truffle Festival is packed with everything “truffle”. Loyal to the Alba White Truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico)- the truffle fair is at the center of the truffle universe- filled with cultural and gastronomic events that celebrate the “white-gold” of Italy; and brings together people with a passion for exceptional food, taste, and truffles.
The fair boasts the following:
- The truffle market- the ideal place to sample and buy truffles from Monferrato, Langhe, and Roero countryside.
- The Alba Truffle Show- part of the truffle market, this area is dedicated to the culinary arts- with cooking shows hosted by award-winning chefs from around Italy and the world- offering up truffle-inspired dishes that have audiences cheering.
- Guest Events and Truffle Sensory Analysis- where the nose knows best
- Truffle Education and Truffle Kids- a pavilion devoted to children and their families- and of course truffles
TRUFFLES – THROUGHOUT HISTORY
The truffle has been around since ancient times, and some historians believe the truffle was already a delicacy- consumed by the Sumerians and Babylonians 4000 years ago.
The Ancient Greeks were well-thought-out to be the first westerners to transcribe truffle origins and their potential as a foodstuff. Aristotle (384-322 BCE), known the father of western physical science, was enamored with truffles and referred to them as “a fruit consecrated to Aphrodite.” He painstakingly cataloged the uniqueness of how they grew, as well as their unearthly flavors, and other diverse properties. Another Greek philosopher (Theophrastus c. 371-287 BCE) wrote about truffles- in the 4th century BCE, noting that truffles growing in three different regions were referred to by three different names. (A truffle by any other name is still a truffle).
The truffle, identified as the “King of the Table”, has deep roots in Italy, both historically as well as an integral part of Italian gastronomic tradition. Since the time of the Etruscans, and later the Romans, the truffle has been extensively enjoyed.
Latin scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) wrote of the truffle in his Naturalis Historia– claiming that the truffle, (defined as a tuber in that age- defined in Latin as “outgrowth of the earth”) was “a product of miraculous nature in that it is born and grows without roots” and that it was greatly appreciated on the tables of ancient Romans. In the imperial era, Nero called the truffle “food of the gods”.
The Roman poet Juvenal, ascribed the birth of the truffle to a “thunderbolt thrown from Jupiter in the vicinity of an oak”, which was considered a sacred tree. This link to Jupiter- the Roman God of the sky and thunder, and his use of lightning, also ingratiated the truffle to myths of Jupiter’s remarkable sexual activity; and it encouraged influencers of the time to inspire that the truffle possessed aphrodisiac qualities. Things snowballed from there, truffles with their “sexual” powers, leading to further legend stating that the truffle was dedicated to the goddess Venus by the Pagans; and many believed that this irregular outgrowth from the earth was “sustenance” on which the devil sustained himself.
Copying the Romans, a Greek philosopher (Plutarch of Cheronea) noted that the truffle was born from the elements (the combined action of water, heat, and lightning). Like the Romans, truffles were often found on the tables of Greece as well.
There isn’t much written of the truffle and its culinary prowess during the middle ages, but truffles resurface in literature in the Renaissance period; where they are found on the tables of notable historical figures such as Caterina de’ Medici and Lucrezia Borgia and served at the most elegant dinners across Europe.
The Renaissance brought forth a myriad of romantic literature, covering a variety of subject matter, including the truffle. “Opusculus de tuberis”, written in 1564 by Alfonso Ciccarelli, an Umbrian doctor- was the first book dedicated entirely to the truffle.
By the 1600s, the truffle was referred to as the “garlic of the riches” around Europe, most likely due to its garlicky aroma. This association with aristocracy lasted well into the next century.
In the early eighteenth century, in Piedmont, where white truffles were commonly found; and deemed rarer than their black truffle counterparts; white truffles soon became highly sought after and were considered the most valuable truffles by all of the aristocrats in Europe- who often partook in white truffle hunts staged by the royal courts as a form of palace entertainment. It is also noted that Piedmont truffles were so highly regarded that they were used as “diplomatic gifts” by the House of Savoy- and received the highest regards by their recipients in the royal courts across Europe. Garlic of the riches indeed.
It was also during this period that the first scientific studies of truffles began to appear. In 1711, Etienne Francois Geoffroy, a French botanist was one of the first to identify the truffle as “a type of mushroom”.
While a decade and a half later, in 1729, Giovanni Bernardo Vigo, an Italian botanist from Florence, correctly identified two varieties of black truffles Tuber Melanosporum and Tuber Aestivum.
In the late eighteenth century, a monograph on truffles entitled “Lettres sur les truffes du Piemont” written by Count de Borch was the first book to talk about the truffles from Alba. De Borch was not a scientist, nor a researcher- but rather a traveler and observer- highly interested in botany- he was the first to declare that truffles were not tubers (as originally thought), but in fact fungi. He wrote about the truffles after travelling to Alba and Monferrato in 1780.
Subsequent to De Borch, who opened up the scientific era of this magnificent fungi, inspired Vittorio Pico, a doctor from Turin, Italy to study and write about truffles in 1788, who described white truffles by calling them Tuber Magnatum- (“truffle of the powerful”)– giving rise to the botanical name Tuber Magnatum Pico.
It was in 1831 when the truffle was finally given a scientific description by Italian botanist & mycologist Carlo Vittandini- who in his book “Monographia Tuberacearum” described several varieties of truffles and gave birth to the science of truffle study- called “Idnologia” (from the Greek “Hydnon”). Vittandini contributed so much to the science and study of Tuberaceae (truffles) that many truffle varieties include his name- for example the name of the black summer truffle Tuber Aestivum Vittadini.
Fast-forward to 1928, when the white truffle of Alba was introduced to the world when Alban entrepreneur (hotelier and restaurateur) Giacomo Morra, the creator of Tartufi Morra held an exhibition to promote the excellent food, wine, and tourism potential of Alba. It was at his fair that he coined the term “Alba Truffle”.
In 1933, a London newspaper celebrated Giacomo Morra as the “King of Truffles” for annually gifting a large “trifola” (truffle- to Northern Italians) to newsmakers and famous artists; a marketing stunt that brought a lot of attention both to Alba, and the now-infamous white truffles. Over the years and decades, Morra has sent precious truffles to such notable dignitaries as US President Harry Truman in 1951; in 1953 truffles were sent to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and in 1954, Morra sent truffles to Marylyn Monroe and her husband- baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.
Since then, the Alba White Truffle has become a global darling and has been the object of worship internationally. Thanks to the exhibition, both tourists and gourmands alike, flock to the city of Alba to celebrate the truffle.
Today, truffles are found growing in temperate zones all over the world. From their origins in Mediterranean Europe to the West and Northwestern corners of Canada and the US; from Africa, Asia, and Australia. Truffles have found their way into some of the finest homes, award-winning restaurants and hotels, banquet halls, and palace dining rooms; all within days, if not hours of being hunted and foraged.
WHITE TRUFFLES – DESCRIPTION, FLAVOR, AND SMELL
What started as an unusual edible in ancient times, has grown to be, well, an unusual edible – cherished and adorned my countless devoted fans, foodies, and chefs the world over. Often referred to as the “diamond of the kitchen” – first coined by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th-century epicurean; the truffle is esteemed amongst discriminating food lovers today, much as it has throughout history.
There are a variety of truffle species, and truffles, like other fungi, vary greatly. Most people are familiar with the notable truffle type, black truffles and white truffles- as they are the most sought after. White truffles are irregularly shaped spheroids, with knobs and outgrowths; they tend to resemble a rough-skinned, dusty-looking potato. They range in size from 2-3 centimeters in diameter and typically weigh around 20-30 grams. That said, the largest recorded white truffle weighed in at an impressive 1.89kg (how did the pigs and dogs miss that one?). The flesh of white truffles is firm and tan (light brown) with brownish-white marbling (almost the color of parmesan cheese).
Like our friends in the animal world, humans are also attracted to truffles- thanks to their musky, earthy, pungent scent. From a flavor profile standpoint, it isn’t easy describing all of the intricate nuances of flavor in an Alba White truffle. Although white truffles are often described as having a soft garlic flavor (not unlike shallots) with a rich, deep musky aroma; with nutty peaty undertones mixed in for good measure. Some have described the taste as earthy, pungent, woodsy, mushroomy, and deliciously funky- they are pungent and memorable.
HOW TO USE WHITE TRUFFLES
The devotees of white truffles are a passionate bunch who regard white truffles as the true fruit of the earth. Their flavor is unique and out of this world. Alba white truffles are some of the rarest truffle specimens on earth, the most precious and rare of all the edible fungi. This golden, spongy, potato-looking tuber boasts a pleasantly pungent, earthy aroma- giving way to deeper chords of peaty, woodsy flavors from its white and cream-colored marbled flesh.
When it comes to eating white truffles, keep it as simple as possible. Traditionally, white truffles should be eaten raw and are finely shaved- accomplished with a razor-sharp knife, using a mandolin, or as every truffle connoisseur has- a special truffle shaver.
Once shaved paper-thin, white truffles can be used in a variety of ways.
- Sprinkle truffle shaving atop fresh pasta like fettuccine tossed with butter, herbs, and Parmesan cheese;
- Add white truffles to cream-based penne carbonara;
- Shave some truffles atop scrambled eggs with spinach;
- Add some to mushroom, or butternut squash risotto;
- Add to charcuterie boards with soft cheese and jams;
- Mix with honey and use as a glaze for fish and seared meat;
The premier rule of cooking with white truffles- is to never cook white truffles! While white truffles should never be cooked, they are renowned for their strong, pungent aroma, and heat will destroy their power and diminish the flavor. They are superlative for culinary uses- and added at the end of the cooking process; such as:
- Add white truffles to sauces, for a zesty, pungent, garlicky enhancement;
- Blitz some into a soup, bisque, or even ice cream;
- Use as a substitute for garlic in homemade garlic butter (truffle butter);
- Use it to garnish meat,
- Game- bison, ostrich;
- It is exceptional with white meats (especially rabbit) and fowl;
- Shave some atop deviled eggs;
- Mix some into mashed potatoes, or shaved atop roasted potatoes with Italian herbs and pepper;
- Sprinkle over foie gras (called “gilding the lily”).
- Add to ramen;
- Shave atop sushi;
- Use as a burger condiment;
- Add to omelets and quiches;
Remember, do not cook truffles; instead let the heat from the dish slightly warm the shaved truffle- releasing its natural aroma and allowing the earthy, musky flavor to come through.
White truffles are subtle, but very much distinguishable when added to any dish. This makes white truffles versatile and can be used on their own, or added/blended with other ingredients to dilute or enhance particular pairings; for example:
- Infuse white truffles with extra virgin olive oil, add to a spritzer bottle and spray delicious flavor atop a variety of dishes;
- Sautéed vegetables
- French fries
- Use as a vinaigrette and use over salads, flans, and tortes;
- Make aioli’s and sauces;
- Make your own truffle salt and/or pepper and use to season meat,
- pastas and soups;
- popcorn and French fries;
- homemade potato chips;
- mac and cheese;
- caramel corn;
- homemade bread knots;
- Mix with butter and use to sauté vegetables,
- spread on bread,
- coat pasta,
- flavor soups, stews, and bisques
- spice up canapes
CARE & HANDLING- STORING TRUFFLES
Truffles should be consumed fresh, however, once a fresh truffle has been dug up, cleaned, and shipped, it doesn’t last very long- typically five days. So how do you maximize that truffle freshness? Like most fungi (mushrooms as an example), once removed from its natural habitat – it is susceptible to attack from a variety of “spoilers”. Microbial spoilage (attacks from microorganisms), physical spoilage, and of course chemical spoilage- (chemicals in the air is the number one cause for food spoilage). Air is predominantly made up of nitrogen (78+ percent), oxygen (21+ percent), and the remainder (1%) of other gases. In the case of truffles, the key is to keep them dry. Moisture is the enemy!
To best preserve truffles, store them in an airtight container and put them in the refrigerator. At the very least, store them in paper towels (the paper towels will absorb moisture).
In addition, do not clean the truffle until you plan to use it- again moisture is the enemy. Avoid condensation and humidity- (sexy terms for moisture) which can cause decay and speed up the spoilage process.
If your truffles are exposed to moisture, try to use them up as quickly as possible, do not store the truffles in rice (to absorb the moisture)- they are not a wet mobile phone (and that won’t help the wet phone either). Storing truffles in rice only dehydrates the truffles and absorbs the aroma- which is great if you want very expensive truffle-infused rice- but it robs all the flavors from the truffles. Last I checked, rice is far more readily available, and inexpensive compared to truffles.
Similar to other fungi, in order to clean white truffles, it is important not to wash or submerge your truffles in water (again – moisture is the enemy); instead- simply wipe the exterior of the truffle with a soft mushroom brush or cloth to remove or loosen any soil or debris prior to use. You can also rid any crevices or pockets of dirt using the tip of a paring knife and then re-brush as needed. In the end, you want to experience the truffle on its own, without sullying the experience with added dirt or debris.
If your stored truffles are reaching the end of their life, (not unlike a bunch of fully ripened fruit) and you are unable to take advantage of using them in the short term, you can dehydrate them, or infuse the truffles with oil, salt, or butter. Avoid freezing the truffles, as freezing introduces moisture, and as we have learned- moisture is the enemy. Lastly, it is important to store the truffle on its own.
WHERE CAN YOU BUY FRESH ALBA WHITE TRUFFLES?
There are a number of outlets available that sell fresh truffles;
Epicurean and specialty stores; Truffle brokers who source truffles directly from regional truffle hunters (perfect if you live in Italy- or where the truffles are sourced); and of course- online at International House of Caviar – fine purveyors of caviar and exceptional-quality foods from around the world.