Those of you reading us on a regular basis know I like to write about my family and the many, fond memories I have from my childhood, which I delightfully spent in the lovely hills of southern Piemonte. Actually, I think you may be able to start reconstructing my family tree just by pieceing together the little anedoctes I start many of my articles with.
So, my apologies if my childhood stories bore you, but here comes another one.
I really could not avoid it this time, because tartufi were a staple of each and every Fall of my child life: my dad had been a "trifolao" (a truffle searcher) since he was a teen in the '50s and man! he used to find kilos of them.
I have photos of me at about 4 years of age, wearing this blue and red striped tee, sitting on front of a table, clad in –alas!– a red and white checkered tablecloth, sticking my hands in a large basket filled to the brim with white truffles: my eyes set on them, I was already dreaming of the deliciousness my grandmother would have turned them into later that evening.
To me, having tons of white truffles around the house was normal: coming the Fall, truffles would appear in the larder just as easily as the eggs coming from my grandfather's chicken coop. On a good season, dad would actually give black truffles to the truffle dog as a treat, because he would find so many.
And oh, the pleasure of shaving tons of it on my buttered tagliatelle, or on my grandmother's delicious ragù: certain things truly have no price.
Thinking of it, truffles are also behind my love for animals: my dad always had a truffle dog, sometimes even two, and he often trained young dogs to become searchers. Dad's first truffle dog I remember was Lila: Lila was sweet and very soft, her long straight coat had the color of cookies. On her head, a little white star. Then we had Laika, who was all white with ears and markings the color of cappuccino. She, too, had an incredibly soft fur, to the point mom and I nicknamed her "latticino," which translates as "dairy," but brings about the idea of something smooth and pleasant, just as Laika's coat. Laika was an amazing truffle searcher so, when she had puppies, two of them were trained by dad to become searchers themselves and went living with some friends. Once, one of them stayed with us: we called her Lila, to honor the other Lila, who had, by then, reached animal paradise for a while.
When it comes to truffles, you can see, I was lucky, as I have been for many, many things related to my childhood. I also learned a few things about them, though, and this may be more interesting to you than my literary divagations into memory land...
Truffles: what are they?!
Alas... truffles are mushrooms. Yes, they are underground growing mushrooms, belonging to the the Ascomycetes class of the Tuberaceae family. They grow under trees or, to be more precise, on their roots, from which they gain nutrition. Truffles have different characteristics not only depending on their typology (white or black) and variety (the black truffle family is particularly large), but also on the type of soil they grew into and the plant they associate with.
White truffles: searching them
In Piemonte, the "trifolao" searches with the aid of specially trained dogs. Mongrels are said to be better than pure breed, but if it is a pure breed you want, then make sure it is a hunting dog. If puppies come from a line of good truffle searching dogs, there are good chances they will be, too. My dad always told me she-dogs are better searchers than males and I think this is a pretty commonly believed thing among "trifolai;" transforming a dog into a good truffle searching dog takes training and time, even when they have good genes. Some "trifolai" are also good at turning dogs into perfect searchers, just as my dad used to do. I remember him doing it, actually.
Dogs start their training young: the trick is to use something with a strong, pungent smell and flavor like mature cheese or gorgonzola, let the dog sniff it and then hide it in places more and more difficult to find, treating it as a playing session. Once the dog gets used to the search, the most important part of the training begins: the "trifolao" switches the cheese with small black truffles and, after a bunch of hit and misses, les jeux sont faits. My dad always says the reason dogs learn it and love searching truffles is, ultimately, because they want to eat them, so it is essential to keep close to the dog while they search and dig, or you may be left with nothing but a few truffle crumbles to bring home! Because of this, it is absolutely paramount to bring dog treats with you when you go truffle searching: in the end, dogs do most of the job, and it would not be fair to leave them empty handed!
Where to look
Truffles are a serious business: even if you search them only for personal pleasure and your findings are mostly enjoyed by family and friends, you have to keep in mind what you bring home is quite literally worth its weight in gold. Many "trifolai" search to sell and things get pretty serious then. Finding the best spot to search is essential and, if usually "trifolai" know the areas where truffles grow each year in larger quantities, it is not uncommon for them to explore new places and keep them more or less secret, should they hide a rich bounty. This is among the reasons why truffle searching often takes place at night or in the early hours of the morning.
Each "trifolao" knows truffles grow in symbiosis with trees, but not all trees are good, of course. The best are those belonging to the oak family: English oak is down handedly the best symbion for high quality white truffles, along with holm oaks. Of course, truffles grow under other trees, too: turkey oaks, chestnut trees, pines, hazelnut trees are only some among various truffle bearing trees out there.
"Trifolai" are not only knowledgeable about where to find truffles and recognizing the best among them from the mediocre, they are also aware truffle searching is regulated by specific rules, and we're not only and exclusively talking about the law (more on this in just a moment). The first and foremost truffle searching rule is "be kind to nature and respect her life cycle:" after you got your mits on that truffle, cover up the hole as only like this new truffles will have the opportunity to grow, keeping nature's work active throughout the seasons.
The legality of it all
I don't know if any of you would actually consider moving to Italy to become a "trifolao," even though I must admit there is a certain implicit romanticism in the idea, but it may be handy to know that, in order to truffle search, you have to hold a specific permit, released by the province of competence. In the province of Cuneo, where I am from, each aspiring "trifolao" has to pass a suitability exam; if all goes well, he will be issued a 10 year, renewable permit.
Let's talk business: white truffle in the kitchen
In my family, truffle went especially on homemade, buttered "tajarin" (thin, flat noodles, typical of Piemonte), risotti and carpaccio. In season, you can often find "tume" (a type of Piedmontese cheese made with cow and sheep milk) with truffles inside: they are simply delicious.
Truffle butter and oil are also pretty popular, as they both allow to preserve tartufi for a while and enjoy their taste even after the season is over. Actually, my step mother taught me a trick, which however works well only with black truffles, as white would be too delicate for it: get an ice cube container and place some truffle shavings in each section. Cover them with extra virgin olive oil and freeze. Like this, you will have single portions of truffles to cook with any time you like. They are perfect to add to fresh homemade pasta!
Another very popular combination is truffle shavings on scrumbled or fried eggs: simple and delicious. Truth is that truffles are perfect shaved on any type of pasta, even filled. If you have excellent white truffles, stick to butter as a dressing: it will only exalt their fragrance. At the same time, do not be afraid to match your truffles with meat or mushroom sauces, especially when they are fresh. Another winner is sausage risotto with truffle shavings, or gnocchi with fontina and tartufo on top. Fonduta, a cheese based sauce eaten with bread, meats and vegetables, is also delicious with a shave of truffles.
You can also use truffles to enrich your main dishes: truffles go well with veal, eggs, cod, rabbit and even chicken and turkey. You can add flavor to your vegetables, as they are a perfect match for many a green: try them on salads, especially with wild mushrooms, or with asparagus (asparagi all'Albese) and artichokes.
One last thing: prices. Truffles are expensive, but this does not mean you cannot treat yourself once in a while. Keep in mind white truffles are considerably more expensive than black, but black truffles are often easier to come about outside truffle-growing regions. Prices are per 100 gr, but usually people buy truffle in 20 gr parts. Season this year has just started, so prices are not quite available yet, but last Fall white truffle ranged, according to Tuber.it, the Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufo's portal, between 200 and 250 euro (225 and 281 USD) per 100 gr.
But oh... that will be well spent money!