A fungus with a strong smell doesn’t sound like the most appetizing food, but can sell for hundreds of euros a kilo, making truffles one of the most expensive foods in the world. Here in Italy, the truffle season is in full swing and we are now in the week of the annual ‘White Truffle Festival’ in Alba, Piemonte. The white truffle is the most prestigious of the two, due to its rarity, proving more difficult to find than its counterpart - the black truffle. As a bit of a truffle novice, I spent last Saturday with a truffle expert to learn a thing or two.
I first met Pino Ciocchetti at a truffle dinner he organized here in Bergamo, strumming on an electric guitar and grinning from ear to ear. I remember him running around the room, generously grating fresh truffle on to 50 plates of buttery tagliatelle, making sure each person had smelled it before topping up their pasta. I had never met a man with such energy and passion for natural and fresh food. It turns out that Pino is one of Bergamo’s most talented truffle hunters - the president of the Bergamo Truffle Association and owner of “Gusto Esagerato” (exaggerated taste), his own food brand.
I was lucky enough to meet with Pino again during a training session with his dog Mira. He believes that any dog can hunt for truffles, as long as they are taught from a young age. Pino studied mushrooms for five years before discovering his passion for the beloved truffle. Whilst we walked his small property, he explained a few things about truffles:
What is a truffle?
A fungus. Both black and white truffles are from the mushroom family, they are hypogeum which means they grow under earth on tree roots feeding on nutrients from which the tree lives.
Which trees produce truffles?
Trees such as the hazelnut, the hornbeam and the oak may have truffles. You can tell if a tree is producing truffles by focusing on the grass circling the plant. The trees that are producing truffles eat the grass around the base, leaving behind what looks like a circle of dead grass.
What should we look for if we are buying a truffle?
Smell it! You must nose it, big means nothing, the smell is the most important part. Sometimes the smallest of truffles can be the most potent, and this is the one you want to go for, don’t be fooled by the size.
How should we preserve truffles?
You can either put the truffle in a jar with some rice sealed well, and in the fridge. This is a good preparation if you want to make a risotto. Otherwise you can put the truffle in a jar, wrapped in a piece of paper towel to take away the moisture. The fresher the truffle the better it is, so don’t preserve your truffle for too long. No time to use it this week? You can slice your truffle and seal it in a container and freeze it.
The best way to prepare truffles?
According to the truffle experts the best way to eat truffles is to cook it in hot oil with crushed garlic, salt and lemon and serve on fresh bread. For those of you who, perhaps, don’t have that many truffles on hand, I personally think the best way to enjoy the truffle is shaved generously over the top of a poached egg... with a glass of red of course.