Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Nebbia for president! (white truffles in tuscany)

This is the period of the year in which foodies anxiously await rain, because the moisture is needed to fuel the growth of mushrooms and the precious white truffle. A delicacy that is currently sold at around 3.000 eur/kg, the white truffle cannot be farmed and is very difficult to find. Contrary to popular belief it is not hogs looking for truffles, though, but trained dogs. The hog is perfect for finding the truffles, but unfortunately it prefers to eat them itself. And have you ever tried to tame a 200kg hog? Dogs are the better truffle hunters (at least from our selfish human perspective), cause they can be trained and convinced to trade a truffle for a biscuit.

Unfortunately this truffle season is not going too well in one of Italy's main truffle regions - San Miniato in Pisa Province. It has not been raining for two months (actually while I am writing this we are actually getting some drops, which lets us hope for more), so the truffles are small and are not as intense in smell and taste as they should be in this period. The season for the white truffle is from mid-September to the end of January, but it is late October and November when the truffle is at its best - usually.

Nevertheless I feel it is time to eat some truffles - what am I in Italy for at this time of year otherwise - so I join Riccardo and his dog Nebbia for a walk in the woods. It is the funniest thing seeing Nebbia running around like crazy once she gets to the forest. She seems really anxious to get started in her search, as she buzzes in and out of bushes, jumps over tree trunks and pushes through fallen leaves. A dog like her is priceless - or almost. A trained truffle dog will cost about 5.000 eur (that is 7.000 usd). A puppy bred of noted truffle hunting parents around 300 eur (420 usd). Riccardo though looks at me very disapprovingly when I ask about Nebbia's value. "How could I sell Nebbia? Do you have an idea what we two have been through together in the last three years? No matter what the weather, we are out here 4 hours a day together." Plus, selling a trained dog would mean that one would also give away one's truffle grounds, as the dogs return to the places where they were trained to search.

Families of truffle hunters are dynasties, eagerly safeguarding the spots they know grow truffles. Information about under which tree to dig is passed on from father to son. The truffle grows in the root network of oak, hazel, poplar and beech trees. To make sure that more truffles will grow in those roots the next year, it is important to carefully harvest it and to close the hole. Otherwise the root dries out and with it this piece of truffle hunting ground is lost forever.

And truffle hunters are determined "If there is a truffle, I will get it - from anywhere", Riccardo states as I wonder aloud how we could ever get to Nebbia, who is balancing over a steep hillside, curiously sniffing down a hill that I would have only approaced with mountain gear. Luckily she decides that there are no truffles, so Riccardo does not need to be challenged. Not that I doubt for a second that he would not have developed James Bond like qualities at the sight of the precious tuber.
After a couple hours of walking, Riccardo counts five truffles in his bag and one more that Nebbia has eaten before we had a chance to get to her and her find. But even without that last one, we have our feast: some beautiful crostini with truffle cream - the easiest snack when you have a dinner party, just grate some fresh truffle into mascarpone cream and your done - followed by truffle risotto.

Now, some more rain, please!


Angel said...

Sounds like a good exercise with a delicious reward in the end! I recently bought of truffle flavoured olive oil (I think brand is Monini) but I'm wondering now if truffles are so rare and time consuming to hunt if it is possible for them to get into a mass product like that you find in your supermarket chain...? i.e. could they be using some synthetic substitues as in so many other products where we read natural/natural identical ingredients?...On German products I've also seen 3 terms - naturrein, natürlich and naturidentisch..

Lee said...

Dear Angel, yes, your instinct is correct. The truffle oil you bought is most probably enhanced with aromas. The only way to really conserve the taste of truffle is to shred or grate it into butter that you then freeze. But also here, the ones you buy are mostly using added aromas. There are only very few producers of truffle products which have a real natural product line and they have a very upmarket price point, hence will most probably not be found in a supermarket!