Italian Truffle Varieties

What are truffles

The truffles are ascomyzetes, tube mushrooms. They grow in the earth, singly or in clusters and form a symbiosis with the roots of certain trees with dense foliage (oaks, scots pines, poplars and willows). All varieties of truffle usually have a roundish, irregular shape. Each truffle variety has its own colouring which varies according to the degree of ripeness. The degree of ripeness can be determined from the appearance of the gleba (fruit layer), depending on its colour as well as the structure of the veins. Each kind of truffle has its unique perfume and aromatic signature. Many attempts have been made to describe the taste, none very satisfactorily. If the truffle is not dug up it, disintegrates after having ripened and dispersed millions of spores into the earth, ensuring the propagation of its species.

A history of truffles

The history of truffles is older than one would think. In 3000 BC, truffles were already a sought-after, expensive victual. They were the favorite dish of the Pharaoh Cheops.

The Romans considered truffles to be one of the most luxurious culinary delights and served them as an unbelievable delicacy at their banquets. Roman truffle recipes were found which date back to the first century B.C. Even in those times, truffles were affordable only by the upper classes, although it is likely that the truffles then known were of poor quality. They were imported primarily from North Africa and were called Tarfezia.

In the Middle-Ages, the church regarded the truffle as dangerous, even devilish, because of its seductive appeal. Thus truffles were banned from kitchens for a long time. They reappeared in the 13 C, and soon genuine black and white truffles were spoken of.

In the Renaissance, these truffles were traded at high prices providing information on the degree of wealth at any given period. From the Renaissance onwards, truffles are mentioned in the records, not infrequently in relation to the Popes. Even Lucrezia Borgia and Caterina dei Medici became addicted to the truffle.

It is very difficult to find truffles because they grow some distance under the earth among the roots of leafy trees. Nowadays, one can find truffles wherever the climatic conditions and the special surroundings for their expansion and growth are favourable. One can find truffles all year round except during May. Truffles are found mainly by dogs and, to a lesser extent, pigs. The best truffle dogs are small, well-trained mongrels or lagotto. Dogs, of course, don't eat the truffles they unearth, whereas pigs do if the truffle hunter is not fast enough. Dogs are taught their task when they are small and are rewarded with sausages or dog biscuits when they scratch in the foliage and bark to indicate a discovery. This training takes several years.

But even with the best truffle-dog, an amateur will not be able to dig up a good haul of truffles, because the experience of the truffle hunter is equally important to that of the dog. He knows the best places which he keeps very secret. A "tartufaio" will start his truffle hunt very early in the morning in order not to be seen by anybody. The clear air in the early morning is favourable to smell out the truffle.

The authentic black truffle (Tuber melanosporum vittadini)

The black truffle is better known as the Perigord truffle. Further designations are the truffle of Norcia or, in Italian, tartufo pregiato. The scientific name is Tuber melanosporum vittadini. It is one of the most popular truffles in the world and, due to its very limited quantity, it is one of the most expensive foods in the world. The best authentic black truffles in Italy come from around Norcia in Umbria.

Its fruit pulp (gleba) has a black-brownish colouring. The warty rind (peridium) is deep black. Its period of ripeness is between November and the end of February. The real black truffles have their best aroma in January. The fruit pulp is the deep black which can turn slightly violet. The white veins, contrary to the winter truffle (Tuber brumale vittadini), are finely defined. In its early stages (November, December) the fruit pulp is still light and the surface gleams somewhat reddishly. These have very little aroma and are hardly worth the money.

It is difficult to describe the complex aroma. One notices a slightly sweetish, almost earthy smell.

The winter truffle (Tuber brumale vittadini)

This looks amazingly similar to the black truffle. Its aroma is not as distinct and it is by far not as valuable. Even experts can be fooled if they rely on its external appearance. Only the aroma and the rougher and lighter veins distinguish the winter truffle from the authentic black truffle. Winter truffles are usually a bit smaller, but this is not a reliable characteristic. As both these varieties of truffle are available at practically the same time, a trustworthy truffle dealer is essential.

The authentic white truffle (Tuber magnatum pico)

This is better known as the white Alba-truffle. This does not necessarily mean that it comes from the Alba in the Italian Piedmont. The same quality can be found in a few other regions in Italy, including San Miniato. It is the most expensive and thus the most luxurious food in the world. Because of its smooth surface, it looses its humidity very quickly which causes a weight-loss and a price-loss.

This kind of truffle has a smooth, pale ochre or slightly yellowish surface, and the fruit pulp has a light brown colour with fine veins.

Its extremely strong but pleasant aroma reminds you a bit of garlic, honey and flowers. It is very sensitive to heat and loses its aroma when cooked. This is the reason why it is mostly used fresh by grating it over warm dishes like pasta or egg dishes. Its season lasts from October to the end of December.

The black summer truffle or scorzone (Tuber aestivum vittadini or Tuber aestivum var. uncinatum chatin)

This summer truffle is mainly recognizable by its black, rough, warted surface. The warts are almost like pyramids and the gleba has a yellow-brownish colouring with numerous light veins. Its season lasts from March to November, often until December.

The quality of the black summer truffle is very good even though it does not attain the aroma of the authentic black truffle. Due to its relatively good availability and to the similarity in taste with traditional mushrooms, its price is well below that of the authentic black truffle. Thanks to its relatively thick skin, it is much more resistant to the humidity loss.

The bianchetto truffle (Tuber borchii vittadini or Tuber albidum vittadini)

The exterior of this truffle is confusingly similar to that of the authentic white truffle. Luckily, they do not ripen at the same time. The surface is smooth and pale-white and the fruit layer is brown with rough veins. It is collected from the middle of January to the end of April and is often also called the white spring truffle.

It has a very distinct (but not so intense) aroma - rather sharp and not as complete as that of the the real white truffle.

Composition of the truffle

Unfortunately it cannot be proved that truffles have an aphrodisiac effect nor have they been recognised as possessing medicinal properties.

Nevertheless, the enjoyment of the truffle is healthy from two points of view: first, the pleasure of living is one of the most important preconditions for health. Secondly, truffles are very nourishing. They consist of almost 73% of water and a high content of proteins and minerals like potassium, calcium and magnesium, etc.

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