Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Truffles of Alba
Nero defined them as “the food of the Gods”. The Romans sliced them and seasoned them with “coriander, levisticum, rue, Apicio sauce, oil and pepper” and used them in salads. Plutarch explained their origins as the result of the combined effects of “water, earth, heat and thunderbolts”. It was not until 1788 that naturalist Vittorio Pico established the fact that Truffles are in actuality a “hypogeal mushroom”, and the scientific name of the white truffle, the aromatic and most prized member of the family, is now “Tuber Magnatum Pico”.
Truffles are not tubers; the name just comes from the appearance of the mushroom. They are mushrooms that grow in symbiosis with the roots of oak trees, willows, walnuts and poplars, in an elevation between 400 and 600 meters, typical of South Piedmont.
The French love the Perigord truffles, black with a thick, wrinkled bark, but the most highly prized by the world’s epicures is the white truffle (tartufo bianco) of Alba; they mature from September to December in the wooded hills around the capital of the Langhe. The same area also gives us the other local members of the truffle family, “bianchetti marzuoli” the spring truffles, and the summer’s “scorzoni”.
The truffle hunter (trifulau) usually works at night to avoid being followed to the best sites, walking through the woods and using trained dogs to discover these scented culinary delights. Until now, the white truffle is the only area product that is still traded hand to hand by weight, from the trifulau to the buyer, without paying the 19% VAT and without invoices. There are other Italian regions that produce truffles; Tuscany, the Marche and Umbria, but their product is considered of lower quality and therefore is much lower priced.
White truffles are locally consumed fresh or sometimes preserved in brine. They are never cooked, they are shaved over dishes. There is a thriving truffle export market, but the quantity of the white truffle available is continuously decreasing because of pollution and the use of herbicides that leach into the local water table. Very soon, the black spring truffle which is not as delicate as the white, therefore not as desirable, will be the only one available for export.
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