The Tuscany truffle area around San Miniato in Pisa province
Every autumn hundreds of truffle lovers congregate in the ancient main squares of the towns to sample, judge and evaluate the many varieties of this so desired and costly fungus or tuber about which the great Brillant Savarin once said that it could ‘make a woman more tender and a man more loveable’.
In San Miniato in Pisa province, in woods on low hills armies of expert hunters, aided by their faithful pig or pup, literally dig up first-class specimens of both the white and black varieties. In those autumn days of gourmet festivals the truffle is king of the kitchen and its unforgettable aromas never cease to amaze and spell-bind.
What is the truffle ?
Truffles grow only on or near the roots of trees, mainly limes, poplars and weeping willows and especially oaks, at depths up to thirty centimetres (twelve inches). They are hunted with the aid of keen-nosed pigs or talented dogs, but since porcine predilections for the precious lumps are even more enthusiastic than mankind’s, determined digging sprees for the prize are usually won by the pig. It is therefore prudent to train up a dog, by nature indifferent to truffle charms. Commercial cultivation is impracticable – rare and special soils are needed in addition to the right tree roots, and the creation of fecund conditions requires much costly, expert and laborious care for eight or ten years before, if ever, any useful specimens appear (often none ever do).
Truffles are so rare in North American that few people have ever heard of them, let alone hunted any. Apparently truffles live in symbiosis with the tree, absorbing water and mineral salts from the soil through the tree roots. Colour, texture, aroma and flavour seem to be determined by the symbiosis. Oak-borne truffles have a more penetrating, pungent aroma compared with those growing near lime trees, whose perfume is powerful but gentler, sweeter. It should be remembered that truffles have very little flavour by themselves – their preciousness derives from their unique ability to impart a wonderfully delicious, almost magical flavour to accompanying or ancillary foods on which they are placed or with which they are mixed.
The very best sorts should be cut into paper-thin slices for covering the food they are to garnish – meats, pastasciutta, vegetables. Lesser qualities are excellent for cutting into little pieces and browning them in oil with a little garlic and thyme, this condiment to be applied quickly and directly to the main dish on the plate or they may be ground into sauces for innumerable uses.