“The most learned men have sought to ascertain the secret, but no planting was ever followed by a harvest. One of the great values of truffles is their dearness, perhaps they would be less highly esteemed if they were cheaper.”
– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
although people have been eating truffles for thousands of years, it was only during the Renaissance that they started to gain popularity as a flavoursome ingredient in European cuisines. Being a characteristically rare, expensive and difficult to cultivate delicacy, truffles were usually only enjoyed by noblemen and royalty. Contrary to the quote above however, truffles were eventually cultivated successfully in southern France at the beginning of the 19th century. But what, exactly, are truffles?
A truffle is the fruiting body of a particular fungus that grows only underground, usually near the roots of certain trees, such as beech, oak, birch, hazel and pine. Due to their hidden nature, truffles are almost impossible for people to easily find, which is why we have enlisted the help of animals’ keen sense of smell when looking for them. Farmers would originally follow pigs, who had a natural talent for sniffing out the funghi. Using pigs was eventually banned in Italy, however, because as well as having a tendency to eat the delicacy before the farmer could get to it, the pigs’ foraging style would damage the growing conditions, causing the production rate to drop considerably. Although dogs do not have the natural ability for finding the truffles as pigs do, they can be trained to be just as accurate and are much more obedient.
There are a number of different types of truffle, but the two most notable are the White and Black types. Black Truffles are more common, with a milder earthy taste, where as White Truffles are the most valuable type, with a much more pungent aroma.
We spoke to Riccardo Giacomini, the owner of Italian restaurant Tentazioni to find out more about these highly prized ingredients.
How long have you and your family been buying and selling truffles?
We have been using fresh truffles and other truffle products since 1997. In 2003 we started making our own truffle products, such as white truffle oils, truffle sauces (Tartufata) and White Truffle butter.
Do you normally use a specific type of truffle?
The truffles we use are all seasonal, which we either grate on to dishes for extra flavour or preserve in our sauces and oils. From December to the end of February we harvest Winter Black Truffles, which have a black and wrinkled surface. Through Spring we harvest the Bianchetto Truffle, which is smooth and off-white in colour with a pale hazelnut pulp. During the long period from May to November it is easy to find the Summer Truffles or Tuber Aestivum Vitt, and October to December is the best time to find the White Truffle, or or Tuber Magnatum Pico, which has an intense yet delicate aroma.
Where do your truffles come from?
All our truffles come from Acqualagna [in the Marche region of mid-west Italy]. Acqualagna is surrounded by forests of oak trees, and is a typical Apennine landscape that sits at the foot of Monte Catria and Monte Nerone.
What makes the truffles from this region unique?
Acqualagna is as famous today for its White Truffles as it was in ancient times. Over two thirds of the whole national production of this well known Tuber come from Acqualagna. For centuries the White Truffle from Acqualagna (Tuber Magnatum Pico) has graced the tables of emperors, popes, princes and landowners.
In your opinion, what kind of dishes do truffles work best in, and why?
The Bianchetto Truffle has an intense aroma that goes great with fresh tagliolini, risotto, beef carpaccio, eggs or white fillets of fish. The Summer Truffles go well with omelettes, and are ideal for stuffing pasta dishes like ravioli and tortellini. They are also fabulous as stuffing for different meats and game.
Do you think products like truffle oils and pastes are a good substitute for the real thing?
Truffle oils, butters and dressings can certainly be a good substitute for fresh truffles. They are also reasonably priced and there is a lot of choice, such as White Truffle butter or a range of Summer Truffle condiments.
Can you recommend a particularly enjoyable truffle recipe to our readers?
Certainly. I would recommend our Tagliatelle with Black Truffle sauce, it is simple to make and tastes delicious. To serve four people, you will need these ingredients:
- 400g fresh egg tagliatelle
- 4 teaspoons unsalted butter
- 50g Black Truffle ‘Tartufetta Tentazioni’ or Black Truffle Paste
- 40g grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1 fresh Black Truffle (50g)
To prepare, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add salt and tagliatelle and cook for 3-4 minutes until al dente. In a medium pan melt the butter over a medium heat and add the Tartufetta and 8 teaspoons of hot water. Drain the Tagliatelle and place in the pan with the sauce, add fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, serve in four warm plates and thinly grate on top the fresh Black Truffle.
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