What is a Truffle?
The Romans revered them, ancient Greeks thought them the produce of lightning and medieval monks were forbidden from eating them. The truffle, a fragrant subterranean fungus, is a food as shrouded in mystery and intrigue as the wooded Italian landscapes where they grow.
For the modern Italian and food connoisseur, the truffle’s reputation is still just as formidable. With more than four different types grown in separate seasons, the truffle is considered a highly-prized ingredient and their extraction and consumption provides an interesting activity for any inquisitive and adventure-seeking visitor to Italy.
Before joining us on a truffle hunting tour, learn how to distinguish your white truffle from your black, the fact from the folklore and discover the truth behind the legendary truffle.
What are Truffles?
The Oxford dictionary defines a truffle as “a strong-smelling underground fungus that resembles an irregular, rough-skinned potato.” For many of the world’s finest chefs however, the truffle has a much more evocative meaning and its use in cooking is often a defining ingredient in haute cuisine.
Growing symbiotically with trees, truffles can be found growing among the roots of several tree species including oak, hazel, pine and beech trees. The soil type is also an important factor for growth and varying habitats and conditions are responsible for producing a number of different truffle types.
There are a wide variety of truffle species but they can typically be broken down in to 4 main types:
Autumn/Winter Black Truffle
The winter black truffle is harvested from November to February and is a highly sought after ingredient in high-end cooking. Found throughout Spain, France & Italy, the winter black truffle is more grey-brown in colour with white, marbling veins on the inside.
Summer Black Truffle
Although not as prized as the winter variety, the summer black truffle is still a valued ingredient in the world’s finest kitchens and is harvested from May through to August. Also referred to as the burgundy truffle, this variety of the black truffle looks similar to the winter truffle on the outside but has more of a yellowy colouring on the inside. Both the summer and winter truffle are revered for their chocolate and earthy tastes however, the aroma of the summer is less intense when compared to its winter counterpart.
Winter White Truffle
Also known as the ‘Italian truffle’, the winter white truffle grows exclusively in Italy and is the most expensive type of truffle. More marbled than pure white, the white truffle is the most fragrant and is renowned for its garlicky, earthy flavours. The white truffle is a highly prized ingredient at the Fiera del Tartufo truffle fair in Alba, Italy and can fetch over $10,000 per kilogram.
Summer White Truffle
Similar to the black truffles, the summer white truffle is less aromatic than its winter counterpart. Still packing a punch with its pungent flavours, the summer white truffle is great for those experimenting with truffles in the kitchen as it is far more affordable than the other truffle types.
For those interested in cooking with truffles, read more on how to choose and prepare truffles in our How to Cook with Truffles guide.
The legend of the truffle is made even more clandestine by the methods of the truffle’s extraction.
Both dogs and pigs have been used to hunt out these fragrant fungi and it’s all because of the truffle’s distinctive aroma. Whereas dogs are trained to recognise the scent, female boars are naturally attracted to it because of its similarity to the pheromones found in a male boar’s saliva. Due to their attraction to the truffle’s aroma, sows would often disturb the truffle’s reproductive system while attempting to uncover the fungus to eat. This had such a detrimental effect on truffle production that the use of pigs in truffle hunting has been banned in Italy since 1835.
The Lagotto Romagnolo is the only dog breed recognised for truffle hunting and is the choice of truffle hunter on our truffle hunting tour. Unlike a pig, the Lagotto Romagnolo is trained to ‘point’ at the truffle which can then be carefully extracted by a person with little or no damage to the truffle’s surrounding habitat.
Although the truffle is small, its legend is large and characterised by its reputable taste and aroma. Join our guides on one of our Tuscan truffle tours and learn for yourselves how to hunt for, and cook with this infamous Italian ingredient. Truffle tours are conducted most months and are a brilliant way for any prospective truffle hunter to get up close and personal with a part of Italy’s culinary past and present.