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Alba's white truffle
The Tuber magnatum Pico, the learned name of the white truffle, grows in cool and humid soils. In Italy, it can be found in Piedmont, Marche, Tuscany and Umbria, but also further south in Lazio and Calabria. It is an exceptional gastronomic product throughout the world.
The queen of truffles: Its history
An ingredient of choice since Antiquity
Truffles have been appreciated, sought after and tasted since ancient times, by the Greeks and Romans alike. In ancient Greece, love potions could contain truffles. According to mythology, this mushroom was created by several gods: Zeus (King of the gods), Hephaestus (God of fire and blacksmiths), Dionysus (God of wine and festivals) and Aphrodite (Goddess of love and beauty). Decimus Iunius Iuuenalis, better known as Juvenal, a Latin poet of the 1st century, mentions, in his 5th satire, the truffles served at the tables of the Roman nobility. The writers Pliny the Elder and Plutarch also mention the truffle, which is said to be a tumour generated by the Earth or formed at the foot of trees as a result of the action of thunder.
A return to grace during the Renaissance
It was not until the Renaissance that the "Tuber Magnatum Pico" variety was distinguished. It was the doctor Vittorio Pico who gave it this name, in reference to the noble people of high society.
In the 19th century, the Piedmontese truffle was given pride of place in the famous recipe for "Tournedos Rossini". The idea for this dish is said to be attributed to the famous Italian composer, Gioacchino Rossini. He named this variety of truffle the "Mozart of mushrooms".
A fair dedicated to this luxury food
In 1928, during the wine fair of Alba, a town in the Italian Piedmont, Giacomo Morra organized an exhibition on the white truffle. The immediate success led Mr. Morra to create a fair dedicated to this white mushroom. At first local, it became national in the early 60s and then international in the late 90s. This fair in Alba (Fiera del tarfuffo blanco) became the world-renowned market for the purchase of the local truffle or Tuber magnatum Pico. It made the truffle all the more famous as the largest specimen was offered to a renowned guest. Politicians, actresses and filmmakers such as Winston Churchill, Marylin Monroe and Alfred Hitchcock had this privilege.
A jewel from the Italian Piedmont
The truffle Tuber magnatum Pico is only wild. It likes particularly wet areas, next to watercourses, and grows near trees such as willows or poplars. In fact, these species are also appreciated on land that holds back rainwater or that is located near springs, streams, etc. The white truffle is mainly harvested around the city of Alba, in the Langhe, in the north-west of Italy, in Piedmont. It is also found, to a more limited extent, in the north, in Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and in the center, in Umbria, Tuscany, Marche and Abruzzo.
Every year, during the Alba Truffle Fair, the harvested mushrooms are sold to buyers from all over the world. In order to ensure their authenticity, they are certified, after analysis, by the experts of the National Centre for Truffle Studies. To close this fair, a worldwide auction takes place, accessible by invitation only. It is held at the Castle of Grinzane, a few kilometers from Alba, in the Hall of Masks. Gourmets from all continents participate, in person or via satellite links. The price of the most expensive specimens can exceed 100,000 euros.
A harvest requiring patience and experience
The harvesting period for Alba truffles lasts approximately from September to December. The official opening date of the season is decided by the Municipality of Alba and the Association of Truffle Growers. However, the white truffle can only be sold from October onwards. Despite the craze for this mushroom, production has been in constant decline since the middle of the 20th century. There are two main reasons for this decline. Firstly, the surface area of land with truffles is tending to shrink because they are coveted for other uses: the planting of hazelnut trees and vines. Thus, in 25 years, 33% of the truffle forests have disappeared. Secondly, the climatic conditions are no longer as favourable as they used to be because rainfall is decreasing. As a result, production has drastically decreased, making mushrooms even rarer and more coveted.
An ancestral harvesting method
Only the very keen sense of smell of an animal is capable of detecting the presence of a truffle hidden in the ground. The digging, that is to say the harvesting of truffles, is therefore generally carried out with a dog, and rather at night. The animals are trained from a very young age to recognize this specific smell. Their toys, but also their mother's udders, are coated with truffle oil. In the region of Alba, there is even a school dedicated to the training of truffle dogs. All breeds can be trained in the search for the white mushroom, based on so-called positive reinforcement methods. Well trained, a dog can detect truffles that have reached the required degree of maturity. He will then start to scratch the soil until he reaches the fungus. His master then takes over so that the truffle is not damaged. He takes it out of the ground and rewards his dog. In Italy, truffle growers are obliged to buy a specific permit from the town hall of their commune of residence.
An exceptional truffle
Taste and smell characteristics of the Piedmontese truffle
The quality Alba truffle is recognizable by its fine, smooth, sometimes velvety skin whose light yellow colour can tend to ochre, pinkish white or even grey. This hue depends on the species of tree at the foot of which it developed. Its gleba (its flesh), with multiple white veins, is creamy white to deep pink. It must be firm, as softening indicates that it has reached the optimum maturity for tasting. Its size varies greatly: the smallest ones are like walnuts while the medium-sized ones are the size of an apple. Its average weight is between 30 and 50 grams, but it can, exceptionally, exceed one kilogram.
It has a frank and tenacious smell that may contain hints of honey, lime blossom or hay. This very aromatic scent exceeds that of other truffles. When it reaches maturity, it contains allied olfactory components. Its aromas are a subtle alliance of lightness and elegance.
An ingredient of choice for high-end dishes
Alexandre Dumas, in his "Grand dictionnaire de la cuisine", compared the truffle to the "saint of saints" of gourmets. He even noted that some gourmets "prefer it to our black truffles from France" and "it doesn't need to be cooked". As a recipe idea, he suggested heating oil with anchovy fillets and then adding the truffles off the fire.
As for Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in the "Physiology of Taste", he praises this mushroom, so prized at this time.
Alba truffles can only be eaten raw, cut into thin slices or grated into shavings. The truffle can be eaten in slices delicately placed on pieces of buttered bread or on toast. Grated, it is used to garnish risotto, polenta, gnocchi, scrambled eggs or a pasta dish, such as the traditional Piedmontese taglioni, in thin ribbons. It goes well with vegetable fondues, beef carpaccios, foie gras, porcini mushrooms and scallops.
The white truffle of Alba is the main ingredient of the famous recipe of "Tournedos Rossini" which combines a tasty tournedos with fresh foie gras and a white wine sauce. Some chefs use it to create original desserts such as Christophe Adam's “Black éclair”, rich in 75% Cuban dark chocolate, or Pierre Hermé's truffle macaroon. This truffle is also used to prepare sabayons, ice cream or rice pudding.