In the late autumn and early winter, subtle fragrance floats in moist soil after the rainy season in the town of Alba, Piemonte region, Italy... Before dawn, truffle hunters would set out with their hounds. Along the trail of fragrance, they search through mountains for what is known as the "delicacy planted by God" -- white truffles.
Truffle is an extremely valuable fungus. From November to March, it grows in a few places in France and Italy. The price of this kind of plant with rich, unique aroma is comparable to gold. The world's top chefs and gourmands are always eagerly expecting this coveted dish …
The word "truffle" comes from"tuber" in Latin, whose original meaning is "derivative" and "by-product". Europeans have been eating truffle for a long time. The Greeks and Romans used truffles to treat diseases. In the Middle Ages, truffles were relegated to "witch's seasoning" in France, and even disappeared from people's sight once. Until the Renaissance, under the reign of Louis XIV, truffles were revived and gained increasing popularity. In the mid-19th century, the production of truffles in European reached over 2,000 tons, the highest level in history.
1. ITALIAN WHITE TRUFFLE
Italian white truffle always ranks the top of the World's Most Expensive Ingredients list, which has its reasons. First of all, the production is extremely low. The average annual production of white truffles is only about three tons globally, which is less than one-tenth of that of black truffles. Especially in years when the production is not very good, their price was astronomical. In November, 2015, during the 16th World White Truffle of Alba Auction, eleven specimens of white truffles were auctioned for a total amount of €287,500 (about RMB 1.96 million), among which the most expensive two were bought by Chinese.
Secondly, white truffles are unique in their rich aroma. "The aroma of truffles is very special, but not everyone likes it. People that like it love it very much. People that dislike it hate it very much", said chef Andrea Zamboni of Limoli at the Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou. Andrea told us that his mother didn’t like the smell of truffles, but he is just the opposite. Indeed, what chef in the world can refuse this rare cuisine?
Andrea comes from Bergamo in northern Italy, which is not very far from the famous white truffle town -- Alba. According to him, truffle season begins from late autumn and early winter. It is highly anticipated by the world's chefs and gourmands.
Like other truffles, white truffles grow under the ground and have a symbiotic relationship with trees. The trees can be oaks, hazels, poplarsor beeches. The size and flavor of truffles are determined by the humidity and climate of their growth environment, the type and age of trees, soil type, and other factors. The complex environment required by the growth of truffles makes them very difficult to be cultivated artificially. Even if they are cultivated successfully, the cost must be very expensive.
What can be called the good year for truffle? There is a playful statement: the sad year for winemakers is precisely the happy year for truffle hunters. Because there is a key factor for the growth of white truffles: abundant rainfall before truffle season. Rainy summer and dry and sunny autumn are the favorites of white truffles.
White truffles grow for only a few months from late autumn to January. October and November are the best months for white truffle market. Many truffle auctions and annual truffle banquets are held during this time, including the famous Fiera del Tartufo in November.
In the producing areas of truffle, searching for truffle is usually called "hunting truffles", while those who pick truffles are known as truffle hunters. But truffle hunters must rely on their helpers.
Truffle hunters traditionally use sows to find and dig truffles. Sows are born to be truffle hunters because the smell of truffles is similar to that of androstenol, a kind of pheromone that can induce the sex impulse of sows. Sows can smell truffles buried 25cm to 30cm deep underground from 6 meters away. But because sows like truffles very much, they would often eat the truffle they find, which make it difficult for truffle hunters to control the collection. Besides, when digging truffles, the pig’s nose will destroy truffle mycelium, resulting in decreased truffle production. Therefore,after 1985, the Italian government prohibited the use of sows to hunt truffles.
Chef Andrea told us that in Italy, people usually use rigorous trained hunting dogs to find white truffles, because dogs are more faithful. Unlike wild boars, dogs will not swallow newly dug truffles and will resist the temptation of their aroma. Dogs' sense of smell is also very sensitive. And dogs are easier to control compared with pigs. But besides Lagorto Romanto, other dogs need to be trained to remember the smell of truffles. A trained hound can be sold for 3000 Euro in the market. Hunters usually do not feed hounds the night before searching, so that their hounds will try harder to find truffles in exchange for food. In Alba, there are about 50 truffle hunters, the most senior of who has 50 years of truffle hunting experience.Hounds are their indispensable assistants.
Good white truffles are those large and intact ones with smooth surface. In each November, World White Truffle of Alba Auction, a top event of truffle, will be held in Alba, where the largest white truffle found in the same year will be auctioned. As the executive chef of a five-star hotel, Andrea naturally does not want to miss this year's golden season. He is looking forward to bring this precious material to the table of guests.
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The French black truffle,as a member of the precious truffle family, though, slightly inferior to the white truffle, is still a very rare highgrade culinary material. As one of the three French treasures (the other two are the foie gras and caviar), it is an indispensable top delicacy for French court and royal feasts.
Nowadays, the production of natural truffles is declining. The best French black truffles can only be found in Perigord of France during the autumn and winter. Coming from the earth but served on the tables of high-end restaurants, black truffles, also known as “the black diamond of Perigord”, enjoy a peak production period from the end of November to next March. During this period, they look darker and smaller, yet with a more intense aroma than their spring and summer siblings. With an intense milk and fungus aroma, black truffle slices often give diners great surprise when added to hot food as the aroma integrate with and change the taste of the food.
Although there are also black truffles in the summer, their flavor is not as good as the winter ones and their price is also over ten times cheaper. Summer truffles have more wrinkles and are dark black with faint adobe brown. Summer truffles, when cut open, show loose texture and boast a relatively refreshing flavor. The skin of winter truffles with flowing curves is smoother. They, when cut open, show black texture and boast rich and concentrated aroma. The “Middle Child” between the summer and winter refers to the autumn truffles (unicinatum), which are usually neglected. As you can imagine, the taste of these transitional truffles is just between the summer and winter ones.
Every autumn, Perigord launches the “truffle trip” which starts from the city of Prigueux. Those who want to trace the wonderful truffles can go there to participate in the local “journey of exploring truffles” to learn more about the growth environment and cultural background of the black diamonds, which shall be of great fun.
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Fresh truffles lose weight every day due to the loss of water. It is quite difficult to keep fresh truffles away from damp and, at the same time, maintain their moisture. Therefore, if not consumed immediately after purchase, preservation becomes very important.
According to truffle hunters, it is best to eat truffles within two days after picking them up. However, it is impossible for restaurants around the world to purchase white truffles once every two days, so how to preserve white truffles becomes vital. Chefs will carefully wrap each white truffle up in paper, seal them up in boxes, and then store them in refrigerators with the temperature controlled at two to four degrees Celsius. “In Italy, we also put truffles in egg boxes. After some time, the aroma of truffles will permeate into the eggs and the eggs turn very delicious.” Andrea said.
In the view of Chef Andrea, in order to highlight the elegant aroma of white truffles, the best way is to eat them raw with some simple and common ingredients such as scrambled eggs, pasta or risotto. Sprinkle thin white truffle slices on a dish, and the flavor can be instantly sophisticated.
The skin of French black truffles is not tasty for its hardness. They are often peeled first, and then finely cut into slices or small dices to be added to dishes.
As the shelf life of fresh truffles is too short, people have made them into various products to preserve their taste more or less. For instance, truffle oil and truffle jam are exceptional seasonings in western restaurants and can make ordinary dishes extraordinary. Truffle oil extracted from the white truffle is the most famous, and can make the food taste more intense, unique and fresher. It may be mixed with olive oil to suit different flavor choices.
Other truffle products include the truffle salt, truffle chocolate, truffle butter and even truffle vinegar.