A truffle hunting we will go! Thanks to the gracious hospitality of the Italian Trade Agency, I traipsed through the historic cobblestone streets and bucolic hills of Parma, the gastronomic capital of Italy and beyond. Our intimate group of food writers visited such traditional sights as a family-owned Parmigiano Reggiano dairy, and a charcuterie museum and production house.
Then I scouted out the best booths at the CIBUS International Food Show where I treated myself to many fine delights from balsamic vinegar “caviar” and paper-thin prosciutto ham to sweet, silky cappuccino and pistachio pates, and melt-in-your-mouth buffalo mozzarella balls from pristine pastures of Naples.
Pastas in every imaginable form and shape, including gluten-free and kosher, olive oil that resembled fluid gold, diminutive ruby red tomatoes sweeter than tutti frutti, and lactose-free, hand-crafted gelato that went down real nicely (even after three servings).
But the food that ignited my romantic culinary spirit was the noble truffle (not to be confused with the chocolate truffle) called “tartufi” in these parts. Revered as the “fruit of the gods,” this freak of the mycological world has been elevated to precious food jewel coveted by fine chefs and refined palates throughout the world.
My fascination with this elite woodsy gem pulled me in to the booth of Savini Tartufi. Fourth generation purveyors of truffles, Cristiano Savini was delighted to share his family story, passion for the fruit, and some trivia of the trade.
Here’s the fanciful truffle journey from forest to table:
A treasure of the soil called diamante di foresta, “the forest diamond,” has a life cycle entirely underground, earning the name “hypogeum mushroom.” The ancient Greeks and Romans were mystified by the miraculous formation of these subterranean fungi. Having a symbiotic relationship with tree roots and soil spores naturalists surmised that these botanical anomalies were created by Zeus-like powers of lightning and thunder.
The Romans named the swollen earthy fruit a “tuber,” and many authors, including Aristotle praised the mysterious fungi for its aphrodisiacal qualities and culinary uses.
The fungal fascination continues today to the tune of $1,200 an ounce, depending upon the truffle variety. The high pricetag is attributed to the rarity of this wild delicacy that has to be unearthed during a hunting expedition using a specially trained truffling dog which is able to snuff out aromatics reminiscent of honey, garlic and clean, fresh earthy notes.
Originally, the truffle had been snorted out by the pig — a natural truffle hunter. But, according to Flavia Lupi, Export Representative with Savini Tartufi, “Hogs have been replaced by dogs, since the pigs eat the precious truffles.”
Truffle hunters take their dogs out in the dead of night to keep their sites secret from rival hunters. With a pointing stick and flashlight they share a harmonious passion and purpose.
While there are more than 100 varieties, not all truffles are created equal. The highly prized white truffle, botanically called tuber magnatum pico from the Alba region, has a ripening season from mid-September to December. This rare beauty is known for its smooth skin (peridium), pale colors ranging from yellow to ochre, and distinctive aroma.
While the delicate scented black truffle (tuber melanosporum vitt), from a region near Umbria, has a dark purplish tinge and warty covering. This fruit barely grows larger than an orange, while its white counterpart can reach behemoth proportions, like the one discovered in 2007 by Cristiano Savini in the woods near Palaia, Province of Pisa earning a page in the “Guinness Book of World Records.”
Weighing 1.497 grams, it is still classified as the world’s largest white truffle that fetched $330,000 at auction, the proceeds donated to charity. Savini relives the rapture of the moment when, “we hugged, we cried, we screamed. That gigantic truffle still covered in dirt looked like a mirage and smelt like a dream.”
Truffles, whether prized white or black, raw, dried or its essence infused in oil, enliven appetizers, sides or main dishes, from bruschettas, pizzas, risottos, eggs, fish and seafood to cheeses, soufflés, fondues, roasted vegetables, and even French fries.
If you ever visit the Tuscan truffle territory, the Savini dogs would be happy to guide you through the woods on a quest for the fabulous fungi, then take you to their cooking school where you can taste the fruits of your labor.
1/3-cup white truffle oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, minced
Juice from one Meyer lemon
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, minced
Method: In a small saucepan on low heat, combine oil, butter, garlic, lemon juice until butter is melted and garlic is tender. Add pepper and parsley. Serve immediately over pasta, rice, fish or roasted vegetables. — firstname.lastname@example.org