As you may have seen from this week’s video, on Saturday I attended the annual white truffle festival in Città di Castello, the area around which is renowned for the quality of its truffles. A facebook friend of mine recently asked me ‘Why are mouldy old lumps scrabbled from the autumn ground the source of ecstasy for some?’ and indeed this is some people’s view of truffles. However, there has to be a reason why they have become such prized and valuable commodities, and that reason is the taste.
It’s well known that there are two types of truffles—the expensive black truffle and the even more expensive white. However, there are different varieties of each which are found all over Europe. In Tuscany and Umbria the varieties are the black Summer Truffle (Tuber aestivum) and the white Tuber borchii. These are delicious, but tend not to be as prized as the black Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum), found in France and the super sought-after trifola d’Alba Madonna (Tuber magnatum) found mostly in Piemonte, the region of Italy around Turin. It is these alba truffles that achieve the eye-watering prices for which truffles are famous.
Truffles have proven notoriously difficult to cultivate and so the majority of them are still found the traditional way but searching in woody areas with an animal that can sniff them out: a pig, or a dog. In Italy, people tend to use dogs, and at this time of year you can see people trowel in hand, dog at their heels, all over the countryside. The local wild boar populace are also very good at finding them, and as a truffle fan, it hurts me to think of the number of them that must get gobbled up by these tusky beasts every year.
So what do they actually taste like? The Tuscan black truffle, smells a little like wild garlic, overtones of which can be detected behind the earthy taste. The white truffle smells and tastes a lot sweeter without the same garlicky overtones. Both of them taste more subtle than they smell with the distinctive aromas filling your nose a few seconds after tasting. Delicious.
You don’t really cook truffles as that would destroy the taste and so in Italy, they are usually served grated or sliced over pasta, soups, meat, or rice.You also find them mixed into butter, used as flavourings for olive oil, and as sauces and toppings for crostini. I bought a couple of white truffles at the festival and ate them in one of my favourite ways: mixed into and shaved on top of a delicate risotto. For the recipe below, you should use the freshest ingredients that you can find. I used home-made chicken stock and my favourite creamy butter from the north of Italy that is good enough to eat on its own. There are many different types of Italian risotto rice (I can feel a blog post about that coming on) but carnaroli or baldi are generally considered the best and are perfect for this recipe. You can make this risotto with white truffle oil, adding half a teaspoon or so at the end instead of the truffle. In that case, I’d sprinkle a few walnuts on top to give it some colour and texture. So, I’ll leave you with that and buon appetito!
Risotto al tartufo bianco
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 dash extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
400g risotto rice
1/2 glass sweet dessert wine
2 liters chicken stock
50g unsalted butter
1 white truffle
- Melt the 1/2 tablespoon of butter in a saucepan. Add a dash of extra virgin olive oil.
- Add the onion and fry gently until translucent, about 2 minutes.
- Add the rice and stir to coat it in the butter and oil. Toast for about two minutes, stirring all the time.
- Add the wine, all at once. Allow the steam to clear and then start adding the stock, one ladle at a time.
- Keep adding stock and stirring the rice adding a fresh ladle every time the stock has been absorbed. Continue until the rice is al dente.
- Add salt to taste and then remove the risotto from the heat, cover, and leave for five minutes.
- Add the 50g butter and grate the truffle into the risotto. Stir through until butter has melted.
- Serve with a few shavings of white truffle on top.
Do you have any truffle related stories? I’d love to hear them.