White gold – or edible diamonds?

PHILIPPA Davis, the Shaftesbury-based private chef, is passionate about the food that is grown, produced and cooked in the various parts of the world that she visits. Towards the end of 2017, she was in Italy, and visited the San Miniato Truffle Festival as well as Pisa and Florence …

“Darling, I am taking you to Italy and we are going to buy a diamond” – although many a person would be disappointed when they discovered that rather than a sparkling stone to be worn, your lover was talking about an edible underground fungus that resembles a dirty pebble, any food enthusiast (like myself) would be totally excited. The tuber Magnatum Pico, aka the White Winter Truffle, White Alba Truffle or “diamond of the kitchen,” is one of the most prized, unique and decadent ingredients you can eat. Current London prices can be as high as £10,000 a kilo.

Where do they come from?

The most highly regarded white truffles are found in Italy. The most famous are from around Alba in the Piedmont area of Northern Italy. They also grow in Acqualagna in Marche, Molise in Abruzzo and around San Miniato in Tuscany.

White truffles also grow in parts of Slovenia, Croatia, and the Drome area in the South East of France but are generally not quite as highly prized.

When are they in season?

The short season runs from late October to early January and globally causes much excitement in the culinary calendar with entire fairs, menus and parties dedicated to them. Many of my clients will ask me to come and cook one-off dinners around now just so they can celebrate this luxurious delicacy in their own homes.

Why are they so expensive?

No-one has yet been able to farm white truffles as they are super-sensitive to the soil, climate and surrounding vegetation and live in a complicated symbiotic relationship with their hosts, the roots of oak, chestnut, hazel, poplar or beach trees. This means they have to be foraged for.

Truffle hunters set out with their dogs into the woods, usually in the morning when the pungent aroma is at its strongest, and search their favourite patches. They keep the exact locations of their finds a closely guarded secret, as it can be a very lucrative but competitive business.

The price of truffles varies from year to year and is affected by supply and demand. Demand is constantly on the increase, especially now with added interest from the Far East and Asia as well as Europe and the US.

Unfortunately, for several reasons, supply is on the decrease. This is possibly due to factors like climate change, an increase in wild boar (the truffle-loving wild pigs are generally not hunted as much, so with no natural predator they are quickly multiplying and causing various problems) and issues with overall land management.

Hog or dog?

Traditionally truffle hogs were used to find them as they have an acute sense of smell. The female pigs were particularly keen to sniff them out as they have the same aroma as the sex hormone of the male boar.   Since the mid-1980s, however, using pigs has been banned in Italy as they were deemed too destructive to the fragile environment in which they grow.

Buying a White Truffle

Truffles are sold by the gram. The largest one ever found weighed 2520g and was found near San Miniato in Tuscany in 1954. It was given as a gift to president Eisenhower. Other very large truffles that have been discovered over the years are usually sold at auction to the highest bidder and can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds. Fortunately most of the truffles found are much smaller and therefore far more ‘affordable’.

Let’s try this at home…

If the idea of buying a truffle appeals there are several elements to remember. The most important factor to check first is the smell, which is an indication of quality and how long ago it has been found and dug up. The fresher the better, so providing it has been stored correctly, up to a few days is fine, but you don’t want any thing older than a week. Pick it up (ask first) and give it a good sniff – it should give off a strong funky aroma that will be like nothing else, but still familiar, leaving you to wonder what it compares to.

You can also give it a gentle squeeze: it should feel firm, any softness will indicate it is too old. A little dirt on the outside is good as it will have reduced the amount of moisture the truffle will lose but as you are paying per gram you don’t want it to be caked in mud.

Plan to eat the truffle as soon as possible, they lose around 3% of their weight in moisture per day and dramatically decline in quality. If you need to store it for a day or two, wrap it in a piece of kitchen paper and place it in a clean jam jar with the lid on in the fridge.

Cooking with White Truffle

Never cook a white truffle! The intense heat will quickly destroy the aroma and taste. It should only be thinly shaved raw on top of your dish, for which you will need to buy a special grater. You need to allow around 7 g – 10 g per person (many suggest 5g but I think that is just too mean).

Just before you want to eat get a new toothbrush and gently scrub away the dirt, you can moisten the brush with a little cold water to help, then pat it dry. Once your dish is plated using a truffle slicer or mandolin shave the white truffle over the top and enjoy the room being filled with that incredible aroma.

Serve it with dishes that are simple and that won’t overpower the flavour. Lightly buttered fresh tagliarini with a very small amount of Parmesan is my absolute favourite, using the pasta cooking water to slacken off the dish and make an emulsion for sauce. Plain risottos, baked or scrambled eggs, semolina gnocchi, baked potato with a little butter and wet polenta are also great ways to showcase the flavour.

San Miniato Truffle Fair

Every year for the last three weekends in November the picturesque hill top Tuscan town of San Miniato becomes infused with the smell of White Truffle.

Fly to Pisa (generally the cheaper option) or Florence then take the train to San Miniato. Don’t forget to validate your train ticket at a machine before boarding or be prepared to pay an unpleasant fine.

Once at San Miniato a free shuttle bus will heave you up the winding hill, giving you some spectacular views across the undulating Tuscan hills and drop you off at the bottom of the town. The buses run fairly regularly and are the easiest way to get there as the town is not car-friendly and gets very busy. You cannot walk there from the train station and there are very few taxis.

There are two main areas of tents. The first is packed full of truffle-related products like cheese, paté and cured meats. The second is truffle heaven.

There is also a wine tasting area, championing the local producers, a chef demo tent – totally worth going to even if you don’t speak Italian – and an impressive pop-up restaurant serving truffle, truffle and more truffle.

Aim to get there around 11am and allow a whole leisurely day at the festival as although it is small there is a lot to enjoy – tasting truffle products, chefs demos, talking to the truffle sellers, local wine tasting, and of course there is no such thing as a quick lunch in Italy!

Buying a Truffle

Take note of the points above but the truffle association seems very slick, prices are pretty much the same at each stall so just choose a seller whom you like the look of. They all are very enthusiastic about their finds, willing to answer any questions and generally speak excellent English to help you complete your purchase in confidence.

Eating at the festival

You can graze your way around the truffle product tastings and there are a few good-looking restaurants but the pop-up restaurant in a marquee next to the truffle sellers is by far your best option.

At the door of the tent choose from the menu one of the white truffle dishes, including tagliarini, risotto and baked eggs, a bottle of local wine (red, white or pink) and pay. Then go and join a table of revellers and hand your receipt to the waiter who will bring you your feast.

For more of Philippa’s truffle photographs, and to read her mouth-watering recommendations on places to eat in Pisa and Florence, visit her website,  www.philippadavis.com