The truffle is an elusive beast, hiding in the woods, beneath dense clusters of lindon, oak, willows and nut trees. They’re inches away, but for all intents and purposes, they might as well be miles underground as our noses just aren’t cut out for that finely tuned aroma to reach us. But that’s another story for trained truffle-hunting dogs, who are able to unearth these wily treats, providing us enthusiasts with enough heady garlicky, honey-like aromas and better yet, almost unfailingly-reliable results with tasty specimens to use on a fresh basis.
Tuscany is one of the more prolific Italian truffle regions, surpassed only by Piedmont for quantity and quality of Italian truffles. Both regions have widely-attended truffle fairs during the peak of the truffle season (late October-mid November), filled with exciting seminars, cooking demos, and plenty of chances to taste what makes these treats so desirably.
Tuscany boasts two truffle-rich areas: one near San Giovanni d'Asso, south of Siena, and the other near San Miniato in the province of Pisa (and within easy striking distance from Florence). Every autumn truffle lovers congregate in the ancient piazzas of these towns to sample, judge and evaluate the seasonal varieties available during the festival, the fabulous white and marzuolo truffles. The marzuolo is a bit less valued than the white truffle, but for enthusiasts, both are the stuff of dreams.
The unique Tuscan climate also encourages truffle growth throughout the year, so while the peak seasons are as mentioned above, anytime of year is a good time to go exploring in the woods with a professional hunter and truffle dog because your chances of finding something delicious are pretty good.
This tuber is ranges from off-yellow to dark brown, is a lumpy fungus of underground tuber, growing from the size of a pea up to an orange. The thin outer crust covers the truffle’s inner flesh, called Latin gleba. In youth, this is white but gradually darkens and turns black with mottled white veins when the truffle is mature. Tuscan varieties include the white truffle magnatum pico, the black melanosporum vitt, the off-white albidum, the summery aestivum and the winterly brumale.
Truffles grow only on or near tree roots, mainly lindens, poplars, weeping willows and particularly oaks. They like to stay deeply concealed, growing at depths of up to 30cm. Truffles found early in the season, called truffles “di marca,” grow close to the surface and have much less aroma and flavor than more mature truffles.
Truffles are hunted with the help of talented dogs - pigs were used in the past, but since they’re more inclined to eat their truffly finds, hunters have since worked exclusively with dogs (pigs are still used in France). Commercial cultivation is impracticable - special soils are needed in addition to the right tree roots for the ideal habitat. The creation of ideal conditions requires expert, laborious care for between 8-10 years, and even with all perfect growing conditions met, there’s no guarantee that truffles will appear or take to the arranged growing areas.
Truffles are so rare in North American that few people have ever heard of them, let alone hunted any. Truffles live in symbiosis with trees, absorbing water and mineral salts from the soil through the tree roots. Color, texture, aroma, and flavor seem to be determined by the symbiosis. Oak-borne truffles have a more penetrating, pungent aroma compared with those growing near linden trees, whose powerful perfume is gentler and sweeter.
Some may describe black truffles as tasting a mixture of chocolaty, nutty, and earthy and others may describe it as having a subtle woody flavor mixed with a slight mushroom taste. The region where a truffle is harvested from plays a large role in the taste. White truffles carry a slightly different taste and aroma. They are often described as having a slight garlicky flavor similar to shallots, with a deep musky aroma. The pungent aroma and subtle flavor can turn any traditional dish into a gourmet taste experience.
Truffles have the unique ability to enhance savoury and even sweet dishes to gourmet status. Savarin aptly noted that truffles can make a woman more tender, and a man more lovable. We would be inclined to agree, and stand by our amazing Tuscan truffles as a highlight of the region’s gourmet specialties.
Considering how rich Tuscany’s culinary heritage is, this is a big endorsement, but we vouch for it anytime. You will have to be the ultimate taste-tester - come see for yourself!
Check out some other exciting ways to use truffles in our Recipes Index. You're sure to find inspiration for truffles and other lip-smacking gourmet ingredients here!
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