Five Top Tips on Truffles

Why are Truffles a gourmet delicacy?

As we are travelling around Italy, I thought I would talk about truffles.  We tried truffles for the first time sliced on a pizza, and I have to say, it is definitely an acquired taste. Truffles are hailed as the "Diamonds of the Gourmet World", and as "The Taste" cooking show would claim, are a delicacy, but why?

TOP TIP # 1 - What are Truffles?

They are a type of underground mushroom, that look like small potatoes, but grow on tree roots.  They appear to grow symbiotically with the host tree, but they parasitize the roots of other plants which can kill them, which can be indicated at ground level by a burnt appearance of the grass around the symbiotic tree.  The truffle’s strong scent comes from aromatic hydrocarbons as well as traces of sulphur compounds.  Truffles should exude a scent reminiscent of undergrowth, fruits, wet earth with a hint of cocoa. Therefore, truffle pigs and dogs are recruited to harvest truffles due to their keen sense of smell.

The truffle is made up of two parts, the "fruit" is the part that you eat, and the second part is invisible and is made up of the truffle’s “roots”. The fruiting body appears during different seasons, depending on the type of truffle.  The truffle can be large or small, evenly or irregularly shaped, and grows at a depth of 10 to 40 cm under the soil. Underneath the thin skin (which can be smooth or rough), is a soft flesh.

Truffles are difficult to cultivate, as they need particular environmental conditions, and the soil, humidity and climate are specific to the type of truffle grown. This of course is why the price is so high.

TOP TIP # 2 - Types of Truffles

Winter Truffles (can be both black and white)

Black truffles: Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini (Perigord/Dolce di Norcia)

Availability: November – March (Northern hemisphere)

The world’s best-known truffle; this truffle has a fruity body that can vary in size from that of a hazelnut to an orange. The skin is black, sometimes with dark red or rust colored patches. In Italy, it grows most commonly in Umbria, Abruzzo, Marche, Toscana, Lazio, and also in Veneto, Piedmonte and Liguria.

White Truffle: Tuber Magnatum Pico Vittadini (White Alba)

Availability: October – December

The most prized and most expensive truffles, their fruity body is usually a lobed, spherical or oval shape. These truffles can be as small as peas or as large as potatoes, and can weigh up to a kilogram. The skin is smooth and of an ochre-yellow or olive-yellow color, and can sometimes exhibit a rusty brown cracked area or bright red spots. The ripening period runs from September to December. White Alba Truffles are found principally in Emilia Romagna, Piemonte, Marche, Molise and occasionally in Lombardia & Veneto.

Summer Truffles

Tuber Aestivum

Availability: June – September

The most plentifully harvested truffle and therefore, often cheaper to buy.  The fruity body ranges from the size of a hazelnut to that of an orange. The skin is black. The odor is pleasant and delicate, resembling that of hazelnuts. The main period for ripening runs from June to September.  This truffle is commonly found in Europe, and in Italy, or wherever there is limestone terrain.

 Tuber Uncinatum Chatin. (Burgundy)

Availability: September – December

Similar to Tuber Aestivum with more pleasing and intense odor

The name of this truffle is derived from its hook shaped spores. The fruity body is large and ranges from the size of an egg to that of an orange, but at times even larger than 10 cm in diameter. The skin is black.  Its odor resembles that of a hazelnut.  It ripens all year round but mostly from September to December. In Italy, it is found most frequently in central and northern zones.

Spring Truffles

Tuber Borchi Vitt. (Bianchetto)

Availability: Jan – April

The various Italian names attributed to this truffle are due to its color, the period in which it ripens and the habitat in which it is found. The fruity body is small to medium sized, ranging from the size of a pea to that of an apricot. The skin is smooth, variable in color, ranging from ochre-yellow to rust-brown or orange brown, and is often spotted. The period for ripening runs from January to April. It can be found in all areas of Italy in markedly diverse environmental conditions.

TOP TIP # 3 - How to store Truffles

Firstly, you need to clean the truffles with a dry brush, to remove all of the dirt. Then wrap each truffle individually with dry paper towel, layer them in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator, or pack in rice (for the stronger flavoured winter truffle). It is preferred to rinse with water when ready to cook or eat.

Some chefs say "never preserve summer truffles", because they do not release the powerful juices that the winter truffle does, and they are not as good cooked. Winter truffles can be preserved for a few months due to their stronger flavour; a few options are to freeze, preserve in alcohol, or sterilize by heat treatment.

To freeze truffles; wash and brush the truffles, allow to dry, wrap in aluminium foil or in a vacuumed plastic bag and store in the freezer. When it is cooking time, thinly slice the frozen truffles. This way they will retain their natural juice and their full aroma.  To preserve in alcohol, wash and brush the truffles, allow to dry, place in a jar and cover completely with alcohol such as cognac. However, keep in mind that the alcohol might overwhelm the truffle's natural flavour. To preserve by sterilisation, place the washed and brushed truffles in a small jar, add a little salt and a teaspoon of water for every 50 grams of truffle. Seal the jar airtight, then sterilise at boiling temperature (100°C) for 2 hours for less than 40 grams, or 3 hours from 40 to 100 grams.

TOP TIP # 4 - Nutritional Information

Truffles are very good for you as they are high in some minerals and fibre, however, you have to be fairly wealthy to eat enough to obtain your daily intake of fibre!

The truffle's nutritional qualities will vary, depending on the environmental conditions in which it develops. Truffles typically contain in 100g, about 500 calories, 32 g fat, 42 g carbohydrate (2 g fibre), and 4 g of protein. Truffles are some of the most nutritious mushrooms available.  Their proteins are rich in methionine, cysteine, and lysene and minerals such as calcium, potassium, sodium, iron, sulphur, and chlorine and vitamin A.

TOP TIP # 5 - How to prepare Truffles

Black truffles are often cooked, shaved over cooked dishes, inserted under chicken skin or embedded as slivers into roast meat.  Whereas white truffles are usually served raw, shaved over cooked dishes. There is a special truffle slicing device called the 'Mandolin' which is used to cut the truffle perfectly. Use the delicately flavored summer truffles as a topping on hot pasta, risotto or  poached or scrambled eggs, or crush them and mix with vinaigrette, or simply shave them on to a plate with a good dousing of extra virgin olive oil and season with coarse salt.  Best to get the preparation right, as white truffles go for about $2400/kg, the winter truffles for around $700/kg, and the summer for a comparatively measly $200/kg.

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