A staple of gourmet Italian cuisine, the truffle is found in abundance during the winter season when every restaurant seems to offer antipasti, first and second courses featuring the prized delicacy.
Not to be confused with the chocolate dessert, the truffle is the “fruit” of a fungus that lives in symbiosis with trees such as oak, lime and hazel.
The white truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico), which grows on low slopes in certain parts of Tuscany, is considered superior in fragrance and taste to the more common black truffle (Tuber Melanosporum Vitt).
Of the areas in Tuscany where the truffle thrives, San Miniato is known for the biggest and most fragrant white truffles, which thrive in the sandy limestone terrain of the forested hills nearby.
Unlike the black variety, white truffles leave no visible indication of their presence above ground. Characterized by a distinct scent, however, they can be collected with the help of specially trained dogs. In Tuscany, the breed of dog often employed in the hunt for truffles is the lagotto, native to the Po river delta and similar to the poodle.
The Italian Truffle Association does its best to protect the areas where this rarity is found. A permit is given to tartufai who pass an exam proving their prowess in recognizing all the varieties of truffle and knowing how to dig for them in a sustainable manner. Unauthorized searchers are discouraged lest they inadvertently ruin the delicate mycelia (root system), which take years to develop.
If not used immediately, truffles should be wrapped in cloth or paper towels, put in a glass jar and kept in the least cold corner of the refrigerator. Clean them by rubbing lightly with a dry, soft brush or a damp cloth just before meal preparation. Heating a truffle destroys its unique taste and aroma, so it is best enjoyed at room temperature on top of a warm dish.
To make the most of a precious truffle, which can cost up to 1,000 dollars per pound depending on the harvest, a tagliatartufi (truffle cutter) is indispensable. Truffle cutters come in various sizes and prices (15 to 30 euro). These are hand-held utensils with an adjustable serrated blade that allows firm shavings to fall onto the dish.
The tagliatartufi may be a worthwhile investment, since truffles are truly at their best when sliced paper-thin as a condiment over foods with simple flavors: risotto; taglierini (thin egg noodles) with butter; thinly sliced, raw beef carpaccio or a porcini mushroom salad. Softly scrambled or fried eggs are also a perfect match to the richness of the Tuscan white truffle.
Local wines such as Brunello di Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are often the best choice to accompany truffle dishes. Whether served in a sophisticated restaurant or simply with dinner at home, truffles make the perfect Italian winter treat. Buon appetito!