The Secrets of Italian White Truffle

November 23, 2019

White Truffle. Image from Wikimedia Commons, author Evan Sung.

It's 9.30pm.

The moon had just shown her pale face in the dark November sky. Pip is running back and forth on the countryside trail up to Bric Cenciurio, in the heart of the Langhe area. All around, silence and the shriek of a night owl preying small mice and bats.

“Go, go Pip, smell it”. Bruno is a trifolao, a truffle hunter. He was raised as one since he was a kid and the old village trifolao used to call him and bring him to truffle hunting. “I am old and I may trip on something and fall. Come with me, kid” the old chap would tell him. And Bruno went along. When he got older, he started go truffle hunting, even at night. And when the old trifolao died, he felt an obligation to continue. “It's true, I like it a lot. The freedom of being alone in Nature, just my dog Pip and me. But I do also feel that the old chap who introduced me to truffle hunting walks right beside me on my night raids.”

The first colds in late October open the truffle hunting season in the Langhe, a small corner south west of Turin, north of Italy. The white truffle of Alba is one of the most precious and expensive truffles in the world. Its value is determined by the exchanges at the Fiera del Tartufo in Alba, one of the most awaited event in the season. Prices skyrocket, with last quotes in the surroundings of £3,000/kg. People attending the bidding are caught by a frenzy. Orders come from Michelin star restaurants and food luxury department stores from all over the world, Asian and Arabian countries leading the bids and often fighting over the same piece of truffle.

Though the white truffle is known as white truffle of Alba, white truffles can be found in an area covering the three provinces of Cuneo, Alessandria and Asti. White truffles must be found, as they cannot be grown, in places called Tartufaie. “When you find one, you do not tell anyone where you found it!”. 

How to recognise white truffles?

As mentioned, white truffles can be naturally found in the South West part of Piedmont, a region in the North of Italy.

Its exterior colour ranges from dark brown to beige. More important, its interior colour can have all the nuances from white milk to brown passing through ivory, cream, tortoise.

1. Look for whole truffles, without cuts or damages. The shape has no real influence on its aroma but its integrity has.

2. Touch: a good truffle has a consistent texture, it is neither flexible as a sponge nor hard as a stone.

3. Smell: it's a unique combination of different flavours going from methane to musk. Some people love it, others just can't stand it. No matter what side you're on, when you smell it, you can recognise it for sure.

Though not completely white, white truffles are so called to distinguish them from Nero di Norcia truffles and other black truffles found or grown in the rest of Italy. While white truffle cannot be grown, the black one can.

Why are truffles so expensive?

An old saying reports that “buying a truffle is the most expensive way to purchase water”. A truffle is in fact, made for over 80% of water. The rest are minerals such as potassium, calcium, zinc, etc. Its value is not therefore determined by its nutritional components but by its scarcity and the value we assign to it.

Are truffles really aphrodisiac foods?

Well, it is true that the typical smell of truffles derives from an animal pheromone.That smell aims to trigger small animals such as squirrels and mice and get them to spread the truffles' spores around. Obviously, this hormone has no real effect on humans. So, as much as we'd like to think it, truffles have no real aphrodisiac effects on us.

When did human beings start eating truffles?

We do not have a clear and unique answer to this question. Pliny the Elder, the Roman scholar, referred to it in his Naturalis Historiain 79 AD as a delicacy the Romans loved to eat. Pliny the Elder referred to some aphrodisiac effects back then, who knows perhaps they lost some power throughout the centuries!

Interested in knowing more? Our friend and residency writer Cristiana is helping us sharing Italian excellence through her travel stories, encounters and passion for everything Italy. You can follow her adventures, here.

In our next post: how to preserve truffles, cook them and where to buy them.