Digging for Black Gold: Truffle-hunting in Europe
They’ve been called ‘black gold’ and ‘diamonds of the kitchen’, truffles are one of the most sought-after – and most expensive – gourmet delicacies in the world. Looks are deceiving… the truffle resembles a small bumpy potato and its distinctive pungent smell has been likened to damp earth, rotten wood, and even dirty socks! These images are not exactly appetising – but once you have your first whiff and taste of the truffle, its something your senses will eternally remember and even crave. No wonder the truffle is a connoisseur’s delight and a highly prized delicacy.
Called ‘tartufi’ in Italian and ‘truffe’ in French, the truffle is never cooked or heated but most often grated or shaved onto food, especially pasta, risotto and meat dishes. It’s also commonly used to flavour oils and cheese.
The truffle is a tuber, a type of fungus or mushroom which grows underground in very particular climatic conditions. Its very hefty price tag is due to the fact that it’s not easily available: it only grows in a few regions in Europe, including the Piedmont region of Italy, south-western France’s Drôme region, and the region of Istria in north-western Croatia, bordering on Slovenia.
While the black truffle can be found all year round, the highly-prized white truffle is only available during the autumn and winter months, from September to January. It is the ‘Tuber Magnatum Pico’, also known as the ‘white Alba truffle’, which is especially appreciated for its strong pungent scent and flavour.
The white truffle grows underground in the damp forests of these regions of Italy, France and Croatia, especially near the roots of certain trees like oak, hazelnut, linden, poplar and willow. Truffle hunters depend entirely on their specially trained dogs to find these gourmet treasures. The Lagotto Romagnolo is best known for its heightened sense of smell, making it a sought-after breed for truffle-hunters. Wild pigs were also used traditionally for truffle-hunting but this is less common today because of their tendency to devour truffles as soon as they find them. Today truffle-hunters rely on their well-trained but easy-to-control dogs to sniff out truffles buried underground.
It’s the white truffle’s elusiveness which gives it a certain mystique and prestige – and significant price tag. While there have been some successes cultivating the black truffle, the white truffle will only grow naturally in a very specific climate. The going rate for the Tuber Magnatum Pico white truffle is 1000 to 2000 Euros per kilogram, depending on its ‘class’ or category, which is determined by its shape, size and scent. This makes the white truffle one of the most expensive foods in the world.
The 2013 truffle harvest has been a good one thanks to ideal climatic conditions. Truffles like to grow in semi-damp earth and truffle hunters say that rain during the second half of August means a promising truffle season. This year’s harvest is an improvement to last year’s which was affected by the very dry summer months, resulting in less pungent truffles.
The delight of gourmets around the world, the truffle is bought, sold, tasted and celebrated at the many truffle fairs and festivals held each year during the autumn and winter months in Northern and Central Italy, Southern France and Istria, Croatia. The best know is probably the International White Truffle Fair held in Alba, Italy each year from October to November.
Truffles taste best when eaten fresh, within a few days of harvesting. For this reason, it’s worth visiting the truffle-growing regions of Europe between September and January to taste and experience this unique gourmet delicacy.
Written by Isabel Putinja, http://isabelwrites.wordpress.com Photos by Isabel Putinja, all rights reserved.