Updated: Jul 15, 2020
All types of truffles are related to mushrooms known as hypogeous fungi. Like mushrooms, truffles have a system of root-like structures but unlike mushrooms, truffles never emerge from the surface. Depending upon the variety of truffle (at least eight species grow in Italy), these delicious fungi are harvested from late summer to early spring by experienced gatherers known as “trifolau.”
Truffles, especially the highly sought after white variety, are the pinnacle of gourmet, usually too expensive for most consumers, except in parts of Northern Italy and Umbria where “tartufi” are a key ingredient in local dishes. In this way, truffles live a double life: outrageously expensive and used in the highest of high cuisine, and yet harvested in a time-honoured tradition that has little to do with gourmet sophistication. In Piedmont and Umbria, the hearts of truffle country, harvest season is a time of celebration for both truffle harvesters (trifolau) and the towns that host the ever-popular truffle festivals.
If truffles are the royal family of gourmet foods, then the white truffle (Tartufo Bianco), mostly found in Piedmont is the king. Tartufo Bianco is characterized by a whitish exterior that can be almost brown with streaks of pink – depending upon the type of tree it grew under. The white truffle is never cooked and only served fresh; it is far too delicate for cooking – although it can be preserved or infused in olive oil. Instead, it is shaved raw over cold or warm dishes often to enhance the flavours and aroma of specialities like risotto or Carne Cruda all’Albese (an antipasto much like carpaccio), and kinds of pasta like tagliatelle. White truffle is also popular sliced thin in salads or on eggs.
The more affordable and plentiful black truffle (Tartufo Nero) is less aromatic and flavorful than the white variety. Found in Piedmont, but also as far south as Umbria (especially along the Nera river), these truffles often have wrinkly skin and have sizes similar to white truffles. The Tartufo Nero can withstand the stress of cooking and is often found incorporated into sauces, or a spread for bruschetta or crostini. Black truffle omelettes are a favourite of Assisi and they can also be sliced raw and served with carpaccio or bresaola.
There are many products that make use of the wonderful flavours of truffles, ranging from preserved whole truffles to purées, dried pasta, pastes and sauces. The most popular truffle product, however, has to be truffle-infused olive oil. Both black and white truffles make extra virgin olive oil even better and are usually one of the more expensive types of oil. Truffle oil is very delicate and is not cooked with, instead, it is drizzled on top of savoury dishes right before serving. Regardless of what truffle product you choose, you can be sure to expect a unique flavour that is indescribably good and unforgettable. Whether eaten fresh over pasta or infused in an oil, the earthy goodness of truffles cannot be matched.
Source: Life in Italy
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