Some people, usually superficial types, sometimes call it a tuber. Indeed, when you have to describe what a truffle looks like to someone who has never seen one, it is easier to say that it looks like a potato. “But it isn’t”, say the experts, “it’s a fungus. A hypogean fungus”. “Oh really?”, they answer. “I didn’t know that”. But at the first opportunity they forget it again; “tuber”. “No, no, fungus…..”
But really, it’s an aroma that can be measured out, sliced, weighed. With truffles, we understand for the first time what they try to explain in taste education courses: you also experience flavors with the nose, and aromas with the mouth. Here it is, our aroma, to liven up a dish of pasta with butter or a poached egg, ready to enter our memory, across our tongue, our breath, our past.
You either love it or hate it, there’s no middle way. And this great love or hate is aroused immediately and spontaneously, impressed on the heart without delay. This is because it is a real and adult response of pleasure or disgust. Offering truffles to a child is the same as asking a child to taste grappa, chili pepper or choucroute. Truffle is an adult flavor, for those who no longer need to restrict the number of elements forming their world, who have already discovered complexity. If the adult has accepted complexity, he or she will love truffles – otherwise it will be total rejection. There is no right or wrong point of view. Just, as usual, a richer and a poorer one.
But the mother of all questions regarding white truffles – known to biologists as Tuber Magnum Pico (there’s the tuber again!) and to everyone else as the Alba truffle – is: is it cultivated or spontaneous?
Although small quantities are found in some damp areas of the Apennines, its true home is the Langa and Monferrato hills, and those around Turin. It is rarely found outside Italy, and if so, it is not far away from the borders of its homeland – in Slovenia or in Istria. The truffle is usually thought of as a product that grows spontaneously, whose presence on the market is due to the nocturnal excursions of truffle hunters and their dogs, strictly mongrels, their olfactory capacities fine-tuned with training. They go off into the fields – because especially in Piedmont, most white truffles are found in fields in the valleys – and they return at dawn, dog and master exhausted and soaked through with the autumn mist, its perfume altering as the day breaks. Only the “trifolé” – or better still, their dogs – have a map of what scientists call “productive areas” imprinted on their brains and their muscles. A toponymy enclosed in the memory, consisting of oak and poplar trees (the species with the highest vocation for truffle growing) and also traditions and memories.
So one might assume the truffle to be a spontaneous product.
But in the last ten years the results, or fruits, of these expeditions have drastically decreased.
Firstly due to the temperature, which is higher on average than it used to be, with a consequent decrease in humidity in the earth – and humidity is vital in order for truffles to form and grow. Cattle farms have almost entirely disappeared from the Langhe and Monferrato, and consequently the perennial grazing pastures have disappeared too: today other types of fodder are grown, and the fields are renewed every four years, and fertilized differently, which has also contributed towards the reduction in numbers of truffles. Added to this is the fact that truffles suffer from environmental pollution, and are damaged by the higher levels of acidity in the land (due to acid rain, for example), heavy metals, and ploughs that dig too deep.
So the close and undeniable link between farming and truffles sheds doubt on the spontaneity theory, because it proves that the growth of truffles has always been linked to the behavior of farmers and their care of the land. In France this was sufficient reason for the black truffle of Perigord to be declared an agricultural product in 1850. But in Italy today, truffles are still “res nullius” in legal terms – “no-one’s property” – and this failure to realize the important consequences of man’s actions on the growth of truffles is at the root of the damage this product has suffered.
Thus it has come about that one of the most expensive products in the world, along with gold, diamonds and precious minerals, one of the most fascinating and richest products in quality and history, is sold casually wrapped in newspaper. Truffle sellers are not subjected to tax checks, they do not pay stallage, they do not have to (and cannot) display qualifications.
Those who buy truffles have no guarantee of their origin, and as these are difficult products to identify with accuracy, the consumer is in the hands of fate.
Confusion reigns, therefore, in the “real” truffle sector.
And if we tackle the troublesome “truffled” products sector (products to which natural or synthetic aromatic substance have been added), the confusion becomes total chaos.
It is now imperative and indisputable that truffles be protected, not only from environmental elements that have a negative effect on their growth but also from commercial fraud. In recent years chemical products have been developed that are used to fraudulently replace fresh and preserved truffles, as well as a range of so-called “truffled” products from oil to cheeses. These are chemical products – belonging to the family of aromatic hydrocarbons, about which little is known except that some of its members are carcinogenic: to date there is no legal obligation to declare the use of these additives on the product label, and any product made using them can be marketed as “truffled”, with the predictable resulting confusion for the consumer – who has a right to know whether he is eating truffles or plastic (whether or not hydrocarbons are harmful to our health) and whether he is buying plastic at the price of truffles.
The Alba National White Truffle Fair will be in its 71st edition this year (5-28 October), and is a classic October event in Langa. The event of the year for the city, for national truffle production, and all the Langa and Roero area, is this Fair. The program (http://www.langheroero.it/manifest/fiera.htm) includes dancing, music, sport, zootechnical displays, art exhibitions, historical reconstructions and all imaginable kinds of “sideshows” for an event of this caliber. But the uncontested protagonist is that legendary Tuber Magnatum Pico and its market, which begins with the Fair and lasts until December. During the market the air is impregnated with that aroma that beats hands down the other local contender on our senses– chocolate, which is made night and day in the Ferrero plants. The Truffle Market will be held in the cortile della Maddalena every Saturday and Sunday. Needless to say truffles are abundant in local restaurants during the autumn, and during the Fair restaurants and hotels in Alba and its surrounding area should be booked well in advance. If you want to buy truffles in the shops (the prices will be as usual 300-400,000 lire per 100g) we recommend: Gastronomia Petiti in via Alberione, 3; Gastronomia Ugo in via Alfieri, 4; Aldo Martino in via Vittorio Emanuele, 27; Tartufi Ponzio in via Vittorio Emanuele, 26 d; Polleria tartufi Elio Ratti in via Vittorio Emanuele, 18 b.
Guarded by the earth, sheltered from the cold and sunshine for months, the truffle is a little prince that requires a great deal of care. Fundamentalists maintain that it should never come into direct contact with water, hygienists wash it without qualms, and dry it carefully. However any remaining earth must be cleaned off, not too vigorously: first a scrubbing brush (not too hard) then a soft little brush, and lastly a dry cloth. It is now ready for consumption, but no knives, or similar implements: a special blade is needed to slice it thinly, and this light rain of flakes must fall onto (never sink into!) simple basic dishes that dare not contrast with the flavor, such as tagliatelle with butter, fondue, risotto with cheese, or fried eggs.
Cinzia Scaffidi, a journalist, is a co-editor of the Slow Food website.
Translated by Ailsa Wood