My sister treated me to a vacation in Italy this summer. As “slow travelers,” we chose the path less-touristed just north of the Italian Riviera and below the Alps. Piedmont (foothills) is known for its gastronomy and UNESCO world heritage. But, its greatest claim to fame is a rare potato-like fungus, the Alba truffle.
My sister added an extra touch to the trip: She located a farmhouse nearby at Cascina Pangeri. The owner Elisabetta, a former restauranteur in Turin, offered to cook for us. I handed Elisabetta a fresh summer truffle from Alba. It was the more ordinary variety, NOT one that sells for the price of a Ferrari. “Betta” lifted the tuber to her nose, inhaling in the aroma. She smiled broadly and promised to create a multi-course dinner featuring our little gem.
Dogs, not hogs
Betta recounted some fun facts:
• Truffles smell a bit like a boar’s pheromones, which is why female pigs were used to hunt them. I thought, “Go girl!” as I cautiously looked around to see if she had swine near her farmhouse.
• Assuaging my worries, Betta added that trained truffle dogs are now exclusively used in Italy. They’re easier to manage and don’t (typically) eat the truffles or destroy the mycelia. Just TRY constraining a pheromone-frenzied pig.
But holding back a sow gone hog wild isn’t the reason behind the high cost of truffles; it’s scarcity.
In general truffles are 1). seasonal 2). have a short shelf life 3). can take decades to establish 4). are challenging to cultivate. They grow about a foot underground alongside tree roots (oak, beech, hazel, pine).
Lucky for me, it just so happens that all those trees grow in the area where I live in France. One of our best-kept secrets is that we have truffles growing in the Champagne-Ardenne.
I recently bought a fresh truffle in France from a truffle hunter who gets them from the Ardenne forests. He sliced one open to show me the compact and complex marbling inside. The jawbreaker-size tuber cost under ten euros (similar in size and cost to the summer truffle I bought in Alba).
I followed the truffle hunter’s advice:
Put it in a jar with a few raw eggs (still in the shell). The scent of the truffle is such that it permeates through the eggshell, infusing the yolk and white a distinctive truffle flavor.
I oftentimes reserve the yolks to make mayonnaise or hollandaise. I beat the whites into soufflés or omelets. But that’s just the eggs, you still have the truffle. I shave thin slices of uncooked truffle directly onto handmade pasta, polenta or risotto and add left over pieces to butter .
What grows together goes together
Elizabetta created several courses.
The adage “what grows together, goes together,” is truly sage.
We paired the Alba truffle with Italy’s famous Piedmont wine – and the evening stars seemed to align. As we relished the flavor – more complex than mushrooms, with an umami-nut-garlic aroma. I marveled at the fact that two pounds of Alba white truffles recently sold for more than 75,000 euros. That’s the price of a home in my tiny French town.
That’s probably why they’re known as the “diamond of gastronomy.”
People say a flawless diamond sparkles brighter than less perfect ones. But for most folks, receiving a diamond has more to do with the person offering the rock than the stone itself. Same goes with truffles, in my opinion. The company with which one shares them brings more gratification than the price.
I am forever grateful for that trip to Alba, and to have a sister with whom to savor a slower, more rich, and meaningful connection to the people and their culture.
2023 Edition of the International Alba White Truffle Fair. This is the truffle celebration in Italy, with markets, haute cuisine seminars, cooking classes, wine tastings and pageantry from Alba and the surrounding Piedmont region. The fair runs now through 3 December.
Fête de la Truffe à Sarlat: This fête is 14 and 15 January in Sarlat en Canéda, which is two and a half hours by car east of Bordeaux.
More about truffles
“The Truffle Hunters” documentary follows a handful of men, 70 to 80 years old, in Piedmont, Italy, on the search for the elusive Alba tuber, “a visually stunning narrative that celebrates life and exalts the human spirit,” according to Sony Pictures
Watch the film here.
Not So Fun Fact: Most truffle oil on the market is not made with actual truffles. The main ingredient is a chemical designed in a laboratory to mimic the aroma. Check the label – if it lists 2,4-dithiapentane, it’s fake.
Read more about truffles here in Dispatches’ archives.
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.