The truffle has been known since ancient times: it has always been considered mysterious and mythical.
“Truffle” comes from the Latin expression “terrae tufer”, earth excrescence where tufer would be used instead of tuber: its ancient presence is certain among Mediterranean peoples, and the first news appear in “Naturalis Historia” by Latin scholar Pliny the Elder (79 A.D.) from which it is deduced that the tuber was highly appreciated on Roman tables who had known and liked it from Etruscans. It is chronicled that Babylonians already knew it in 3000 B.C. and we have evidence of its presence also in Sumerians diet and during patriarch Jacob time, around 1700 B.C.
Its fame increased from Mesopotamia to Greece, where in the first century A.D. the philosopher Plutarch of Cheronea formulated the fanciful hypothesis according to which the truffles would have been generated by the combination of water, fire and lightning thrown by Zeus/Jupiter near an oak tree sacred to him, and this was then also taken up by the poet Juvenal: moreover, as Zeus/Jupiter was also famous for its amatory activity, the truffles were consider aphrodisiac, so that Greek physician Galeno wrote that they were very nutritious and that induced the erotic pleasure.
In Roman times truffle was very appreciated for its taste and had a high price because of its rarity, due to its difficult availability: the first recipes based on truffles can be found in “De re coquinaria”, work by Marco Gavio called Apicius, a famous gastronomist lived in the times of Emperor Tiberius.
During the Middle Ages the truffle was considered “devil food” and banished from every diet: it was believed that it was poisonous, and this depended on the fact that it could grow in land where there were vipers nests, rusty iron tools or even corpses or carcasses. The truffle was not only rediscovered, but also became a great protagonist of the aristocratic tables during the Renaissance: just think that Catherine de Medici brought to the French court the white truffle that grew in the Medicean Castle of Cafaggiolo in Barberino di Mugello (FI) in 1500s.
The practice of using truffles to give flavor to dishes spread in 1700s, once the habit of seasoning food with considerable quantities of spices was abandoned: this use catch on in various European courts, especially in France, where there was a predilection towards the Precious Black (Tuber melanosporum Vitt.) and in Italy where the consumption of White Truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico) was established.
Nowdays the truffle fame is very strong too: it is considered one of the finest foods ever, one of haute cuisine professionals’ favorite.
CARLO VITTADINI (botanist and mycologist) wrote “Monographia Tuberacearum” (1831) where for the first time he scientifically classified the different truffle species, so that many truffles contain in their scientific name the Vittadini abbreviation (Vitt.).
GIOACCHINO ROSSINI, a great truffle lover, used it in numerous dishes: the most famous remains “Filetto alla Rossini” (Rossini fillet).
COUNT CAMILLO BENSO DI CAVOUR often required truffle for official menus, and therefore the precious tuber promoted the diplomatic relationships with foreign countries.
How to recognize the different species of truffle?
The most commonly used method to identify a truffle species is the manual organoleptic analysis, carried out within a short time after the collection. The different types of truffle are distinguished by a series of characteristics:
- The scent: which is unique for each type
- The flavor: also this peculiar for each type
- The appearance of peridium: which is the external peel
- The appearance of the serf: the fleshy inner part
- The maturation period: which varies from species to species
Used more rarely, an alternative method consists in laboratory analysis, where truffle spores are identified by biomolecular analysis techniques.
There are nine varieties of truffles in Italy which are edible but only six which are widely available: Bianco pregiato, Nero pregiato, Scorzone, Marzuolo, Invernale, and Nero liscio.
Aroma is oh-so important as it heavily influences your sense of taste. White truffles have a “balanced and delicate scent of garlic, hay, and honey” and should never be cooked. Their taste is subliminal when freshly shaved over risotto, pasta, or scrambled eggs.
Black truffles, on the other hand, weave their earthy flavour into dishes during the cooking process, like with cheese fondue or juicy roasts. They can also be grated fresh over pasta, eggs, or sautéed mushrooms on toasted croutons.
Infuse softened, unsalted butter with finely grated truffles to savour with a fresh, crusty baguette, baked potatoes, or to brush over meat before serving.
Full bodied red wines pair well with truffle dishes and in Piedmont, you’ll no doubt find just what you’re looking for at any of the region’s intimate boutique wineries.
THE MOST REQUESTED TYPES OF TRUFFLE
As anticipated, there are six types of truffle most popular on the market:
FINE WHITE TRUFFLE (TUBER MAGNATUM PICO)
The precious white truffle or Tuber Magnatum Pico is the truffle par excellence. It is born and grows only in Istria and Piedmont, where it takes the name of Alba Truffle. It lives in symbiosis with oaks, willows, lime trees and poplars, but it can also be found in black hornbeam and hazelnut trees. The appearance is globular, with irregularities on the peridium whose surface is slightly velvety. The color varies from cream to ochre and remains constant even when fully ripe. The gleba is white and yellow-greyish marbled with white veins. It is extremely aromatic, reminiscent of the smell of Parmesan cheese. It requires a soft and humid soil with good ventilation. It is usually harvested between October and December.
BIANCHETTO TRUFFLE (TUBER BORCHII VITT.)
The Bianchetto or Marzuolo or Tuber Borchii Vittadini truffle is widespread throughout the Italian peninsula. It has similar characteristics to the white truffle because it has depressions on the peridium, it is smooth and of off-white color. In reality when it reaches maturity it becomes dark both inside and outside. Moreover, it differs from the more prized variant for its aroma: soft at the beginning, tending to assume strong tones of garlic afterwards. Its commercial value is lower than white. It prefers calcareous soils and deciduous woods such as turkey oaks, holm oaks and downy oaks, or conifers such as larches, cedars, firs and some species of pine. The harvest takes place between January and the end of April.
FINE BLACK TRUFFLE (TUBER MELANOSPORUM VITT.)
The fine black truffle or Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini is also known as the truffle of Norcia, Spoleto or truffle de Perigord. The peridium is quite homogeneous, the surface is blackish brown with rust red shades, the gleba is clear with light and thin veins. The shape is rounded with warts or lobes. The scent is pleasantly intense, aromatic and fruity. It prefers hills and mountains with little vegetation. It lives in symbiosis with downy oaks, holm oaks, Turkey oaks, lime trees, hazelnuts, black hornbeams and cistus plants. After the white truffle, this species is the most prized. Usually the harvest is between December and mid-March, but the regional administrations every year determine the exact period. It is widespread in Italy, Spain and France.
SCORZONE OR BLACK SUMMER TRUFFLE (TUBER AESTIVUM VITT.)
The black summer truffle or Scorzone or Tuber Aestivum Vittadini resembles the precious black truffle, but it stands out because at the moment of cutting the gleba has a dark yellow color. The surface has almost pointed warts, the smell is delicate. This variety can reach remarkable dimensions. It grows in clayey and sandy soils, from the plain up to 1000 meters. Depending on the altitude, it can be found in symbiosis with downy oak, oak, hornbeam, beech, hazelnut, or with downy oak, holm oak, oak, pine or hazel. Harvesting takes place between mid-May and the end of October.
BRUMALE OR BLACK WINTER TRUFFLE (TUBER BRUMALE VITT.)
The black winter truffle or Tuber Brumale Vittadini is easily confused with fine black truffle. The surface is black-brown with small warts, while the gleba is dark with marble veins. The scent is intense and persistent with musky tones, and in the nutmeg variant reminiscent of the famous spice. It can be found in plants such as oak, oak, downy oak, beech, holm oak, black pine, larch, black and white hornbeam or hazelnut. Its economic value is half that of the precious black truffle. The harvest goes from January to April.
SMOOTH BLACK TRUFFLE (TUBER MACROSPORUM VITT.)
The smooth black truffle or Tuber Macrosporum Vittadini is the least known and least commercialized variety, but it is still one of the most appreciated. The surface is smooth and the lines are minimal gibbous. The smell is distinct and pleasant. This species loves oaks, poplars, lime trees, willows, willows, hazelnuts and black hornbeams. The harvest period is between July and the end of December.