The truffle has always been the richest and most refined element of Mediterranean cuisine. Certainly not desired for its beauty – it resembles a measily rotten potato – the truffle grows underground, like the potato, far from light and air, taking its nourishment, like other mushrooms, from the forest undergrowth. Above-ground mushrooms are called epigei, whereas the truffle – an “underground mushroom” is an ipogeo (belonging to the Tuber family). How can the truffle – compressed as it is underground – liberate its spores so as to reproduce? The ipigei mushrooms need only drop the spores onto the forest floor and insects and animals, wind and rain, will then see to dispersal. But Nature has given the truffle an invaluable survival tool: its perfume. When mature (and only then), the truffle emits an unmistakeable and intense perfume, capable of widespread subterranean diffusion. The perfume rises to the surface and entices the highly-developed olfactory sense of animals, eg, pigs and dogs. Here in Italy, dogs are trained as cani tartufai. No special breed in particular – a good nose is what counts and the skill of the dog’s trainer.
The most prized truffle is the Tuber Magnatum or the white truffle of Alba in Piedmont and Acqualagna in the Marche, characterized by its intense aroma. Prices of this truffle can soar to 3,000- 4,000 Euro per kilo. Our black truffle, Tuber Melanosporum, emanates a pleasing aroma and excellent flavor, especially when used in prized dishes of our Umbria cuisine: from black truffle risotto to fettuccine with truffles to simple bruschetta with shaved black truffle and our world-famous olive oil.
Whenever I am lucky enough to enjoy a good dish of pasta al tartufo, I remember wiry and grizzled old Rino who used to appear over the hill with his dogs, walking stick and his truffle pouch tied to his waist. If he was lucky enough to find a truffle or two in our woods, he always gave me one as a gift (see Rino Stalks the Truffles).
Black truffle season is in full force now, peaking at the end of December, and truffles are a key theme in many fall gastronomical events in Umbria – from the Sagra del Tartufo in Gubbio at the end of October to the Mostra/Mercato (“show/market”) del Tartufo outside the tiny village of Valtopina (near Foligno) the last two week-ends in Umbria. All the culinary specialties of Umbria are offered to visitors – from the tiny baby lentils of Castelluccio to wild boar salamis of the Norcia area to the chestnut honeys…but the truffle triumphs.