Gastronomy’s buried treasure
The white truffle. The holy grail of gastronomy. The most special of all specialties across the world epicures and gourmands eagerly await October 1, when the white truffle season officially begins and hunters will venture out to unearth the unassuming-looking little treasures from their earthy resting places.
The white truffle is almost exclusively found in Italy, and unlike its black counterpart cannot be cultivated, and it is this which makes it so highly prized – and consequently so expensive.
In fact, the white truffle is so desirable that in some areas there have been reports of truffle hunters seeing off the competition by poisoning rival dogs, although thankfully this has remained a relatively rare occurrence.
This year the white truffle is demanding a particularly high price. It is not clear exactly why the truffles choose to grow where they do – which is why finding them is such an art – but what is known is that in order to thrive they need rain. And this year’s unusually dry summer means that the truffles are even rarer than usual.
Omar Podesta is a truffle hunter not far from Rimini in the Emilia Romagna region in Northern Italy. His family has a long tradition of truffle hunting, and he himself has been truffle hunting since he was 12, but at 31 Omar is one of the youngest hunters in the area. In the past pigs or wild boars were used to hunt out the delicacies but nowadays dogs are used instead, the main advantage being that the dogs will not eat the truffles when they find them.
Truffles hunters need a special licence, it is not even permitted to forage for truffles on you own land without one, and training a dog can be a fairly lengthy procedure so it is not a pastime to go into lightly. Omar hunts with his dog Lucky, a high spirited young pup who is just at the start of her truffle hunting career. As the pair walk through the woods Omar guides Lucky by softly muttering instructions under his breath in the local dialect. As Lucky gets older and more experienced he will be able to guide her using just small, subtle hand signals so that other truffle hunters will not hear what he is saying and potentially beat him to the prize. The bond between the hunter and his dog is something very special, and the dog will only ever hunt with one master.
It is only permitted to harvest up to 1kg of truffles a day but, according to Omar, to find that much in one day is a truffle hunter’s dream and now there are no full time truffle hunters – it is done merely as a hobby, albeit a fairly lucrative one.
The white truffle has an important place in Italian culture. In fact it is so important that celebrations are held to celebrate the truffle season.
Every Sunday in October the charming medieval village of Sant’Agata Feltria hosts the National White Truffle Fair, and the usually quiet square and cobbled streets are filled with artisans and farmers proudly displaying their wares. And it is not only truffles on offer – honey, mushrooms, cheese, wine and handicrafts are also being peddled.
But there is no doubt that the white truffle is the star of the show. The pungent aroma of the white truffle seems to hang in the air. No wonder perhaps when you see the range of products on offer.
As well as the raw product, there are truffle pastes, pastas and purees. You can buy truffle oil, truffle salt and even truffle grappa. There is cheese laced with truffles, and truffled meat.
There is a huge tent, seating up to 600 people, where four restaurants are dishing up all kinds of truffle themed dishes, from truffle carpaccio to soft, butter-laced truffle tagliatelle for 8 Euro (around $11). The white truffle may have a slightly disconcerting smell, faintly reminiscent of sweaty locker rooms, but the taste is nothing like it – it is delicate and subtle. A dish laced with white truffle needs little else which is why creamy mashed potato or risotto, or buttery pasta makes the perfect vehicle for the delightfully complex flavor.
But it must be treated with care. There is little preparation involved with the white truffle. It should simply be washed and then shaved over the dish at the last moment before serving because to cook it could destroy the flavor.
And now is the time to enjoy a white truffle. The season finishes on December 1 so there is only a small window in which to enjoy the delicacy in its prime.