Spring, 2017, we’re walking through the hills outside Mercatello sul Metauro, in Italy’s Marche region, with a professional truffle hunter, a trifolao. Every now and again his dog, who is trained to have a nose for truffles, perks up and sniffs around and the trifolao bends over, digs a little in the earth, and picks up a black truffle or two.
Truffles traditionally have carried with them an air of mystery. In ancient Greece, Plutarch speculated that the truffle was created when one of Zeus’ thunderbolts hit the ground near an oak tree. The divine origin of truffles was posited in other ancient cultures as well, and as with wild mushrooms, finding truffles is a treasure hunt: you never know if you’ll find any truffles, and a successful hunt seems to rely on a preternatural ability to suss out where the exotic fungus might be hiding. Italian truffle hunters are extraordinarily secretive, passing intel about their best truffle spots to their sons… but not always. I found a story about a trifolao who even on his deathbed would not reveal his personal favorite truffle locations to his own offspring, but like many truffle stories I came across, this one was hard to substantiate.
It was exciting and great fun to go truffle hunting in the beautiful Italian hillside, but as I considered the experience, it occurred to me that the truffle hunter always seemed to find truffles when he was off by himself rather than with the group. Moreover, he found such truffles in relatively open areas rather than around old trees, where truffles usually hide. Could the trifolao have been planting the truffles so that he could thrill the tourists with his finds? Oh, most definitely, and it wouldn’t surprise me, because for all the beauty of the tuber, truffles beget all kinds of chicanery.
Years before, I’d visited the Pike Market in San Francisco and bought a small glass jar labeled “truffle oil.” Later that day, I poured some in a bowl, and we dipped our bread into it. My father sniffed the oil-soaked bread, took a bite, and said, “Tastes like motor oil.” He had a point, it did taste like motor oil, and what I had in the little jar may have been closer to an industrial lubricant than the essence of the magical, elusive tuber. Some truffle oils, like those from Urbani, use actual truffles to infuse olive oil, but many truffle oils are made in the food lab, composed of aromatic compounds, with little assurance they contain any actual truffles at all. Says Joe Bastianich, one of the people behind Eataly in Chicago and elsewhere, truffle oil is “made by perfumists. It’s garbage olive oil with perfume added.” In short, most truffle oil is bullshit.
Luscious Lumps of Umami
Truffle is a fungus, but unlike many other fungi, like cremini or chanterelle mushrooms, truffles grow underground near the roots of varieties of oak, beech, pine and other trees. Truffles are highly aromatic, and in the right hands, can add depth and dimension to a dish: black truffles are sometimes used in sauces, whereas white truffles are usually shaved on top of dishes—soup, risotto, steaks—perhaps more of a condiment than an actual ingredient.
The word “truffle” is likely related to the Latin word, “tuber,” or lump, which evolved to become truffe in French, truffel in Dutch, and so on.
Truffles have a strong musky aroma and an intense umami-rich flavor. Frequently found in dishes of haut cuisine, truffles are some of the most expensive ingredients in the world, with prices ranging in the many thousands of dollars per pound.
Truffles usually make the news at least once every year when the biggest truffles—black earlier and white later in the year—are put on the market. The most expensive truffles are usually the white ones from Italy. In 2007, a 3.3 pound white Tuscan truffle was auctioned off for a mind-blowing $330,000. It’s not easy to think of another foodstuff that goes for over a hundred grand per pound.
With high prices, and the fact that truffles deteriorate quickly if not handled correctly, it’s probably best to leave the truffle sourcing and preparation to the pros.
Osteria Langhe Does Truffles Right
On a recent visit to Osteria Langhe, we greatly enjoyed the white-truffle tasting menu developed by executive chef Cameron Grant, paired with Piedmontese wines selected by owner Aldo Zaninotto, who came to love the truffle when he worked with winemakers and dealers in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. “The Piedmontese winemakers would carry truffles in their pockets,” remembers Zaninotto, “they were so proud of them. Probably the best truffles in the world come from that region and they wanted to make sure you understood that their wines come from the same region.”
Zaninotto gets his truffles from Marinello Tartufi, and we caught up with owner Giacomo Marinello on a Saturday morning. He sounded tired, saying, “It’s been a long night: this is the time of year when I’m very popular. I sometimes drop off truffles with chefs twice a week, because chefs always want to get them fresh, and the truffles will stay fresh for only seven to ten days. I get calls from chefs at every hour of the day asking for more truffles.”
I ask Marinello what criteria are used to judge a truffle. “First of all,” he says, “the truffle needs to be firm and without blemishes, and chefs prefer very round truffles because they’re easier to slice. To me, the aroma is most important; the truffle doesn’t really need to be round like a beautiful golf ball. In Italy, the aromatics of the truffle are what make the difference, so you might have an oddly shaped truffle, maybe a little broken on one side, but when you cut it open it’s like ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ The truffle is a gift of Mother Nature.”
The server who sliced us a few precious white truffle slivers at Osteria Langhe weighed the truffle first, and then very carefully shaved the roundish truffle into uniformly shaped medallions. Truffles in the United States, Marinello tells me, run $15-$20 per gram, and an average serving is about four to five grams, so the addition of truffles can boost the price of a dish by a hundred dollars and sometimes more.
Piedmontese wine and Piedmontese truffles illustrate the old saw that “what grows together goes together”—and we experienced that firsthand with our white truffle dinner at Osteria Langhe. The wines of Piedmont, says Zaninotto, particularly those made from the Nebbiolo grape, “have a beautiful fruit elegance, perfume aromas, but they also have a tannic character on the finish, which brings structure to the wine. And the truffle is also quite powerful, and the mushroom-y character, the earthiness, is expressed best with an elegant Piedmontese wine.”
Soup is one of my least favorite starters, but I’m reevaluating that bias based on the mushroom soup with shaved white truffles that started our meal. A creamy bisque seems like a perfect vehicle for highlighting the precious tuber: the soup warms the truffle without cooking it, releasing flavors gently, and the trumpet and porcini mushrooms in the broth magnify the umami-rich earthy flavors of the white truffles. To pair, beverage director Ashley Akers selected an Ettore Germano Nascetta 2020, which had an almost sake-like subtlety, virtually devoid of sweetness, a good balance to the richness of the soup.
Tajarin Tartufi is a classic Piedmontese dish going back to the sixteenth century, made with noodles that contain a lot of egg yolk. At Osteria Langhe, to up the richness, a Slagel Farms hen egg was set atop house-made noodles that have won Chef Grant considerable acclaim. As with the bisque, the richness of this presentation was a good foil for the white truffle.
I mention to Zaninotto that many of the dishes we were enjoying were wonderfully rich, and he tells us, “In Piedmont, the farmers have a lot of milk, a lot of butter, and the food has a creamy character, which suits the truffle. If you have a tomato sauce, a marinara sauce, and you shave some truffles on top, the truffle doesn’t do very well because the tomatoes are too aggressive. The truffle goes best with the simplicity of what the Piedmont region has to offer.”
A lush ribeye was adorned with thin slices of white truffle: meat loves mushrooms and this combo of ‘shroom and steak was fantastic. With the truffle-topped steak, we had a glass of Azelia Barolo 2017, a deeply flavorful red that made for a powerful Piedmontese pairing. Again, what we had to eat and drink created a relatively simple but fantastic frame for illuminating the beauty of the truffle.
We were interested in trying the risotto of black truffle which we wanted to compare with the white truffle: the black truffle had a deeper flavor, though the white truffles had more powerful aromatics. “The black truffle, to me,” says Zaninotto, “is very dense, with a more earthy expression and more structure on the palate. The black truffle fits more into a sauce rather than being shaved on top of a dish, as you’d do with white truffles.”
At Osteria Langhe, they’re shaving a lot of white truffles these days, and if you’d like to try their white truffle menu, Zaninotto says that this year’s supply should last until sometime in January. Holidays are a time of indulgence, and there are few things more indulgent than a white truffle.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: email@example.com