Have you ever been truffle hunting? Chances are, you haven’t, since the hunt for the truffle is as secretive and elusive as the quest for the Holy Grail. Professional truffle hunters go to extreme lengths to keep their preferred areas secret, and in recent years, have even been known to poison competitors’ dogs. Truffles are nature’s most prized fungus. Why? Well, apart from it being a culinary delicacy, the fact that cultivation is extremely difficult, locating it is also hard work. All truffles grow underground, there are no leaves or shoots to give you a clue where you can find it, and some can even be buried up to one meter deep! If you think about it, it’s incredible to imagine that someone’s hunger was so profound that when they unearthed what looked like…well, a lump of dirt, thought “this looks good enough to eat”. However, because of that brave truffle pioneer, we now have entire seasons dedicated to these “diamonds of the kitchen”.
The truffle, mostly considered a mushroom, is hard to categorize. It’s from the fungus family, but it’s a spore and grows underground; part of a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain trees. The first mentions of truffles were in neo-Sumerian inscriptions, around 20th C BCE. They can be found throughout the world, but are highly prized in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. There are many varieties of truffles, and can be found year round. The two most highly regarded are Tuber Magnatum Pico, the White Truffle, or sometimes known as Alba Truffle, and the Tuber Melanosporum, Black or Perigord truffle which come to season between October and December. Lesser, yet still delicious, varieties are Tuber Aestivum (summer truffle) and Tuber Uncinatum (burgundy truffle). White truffle is the most expensive, because it is the only one that cannot be cultivated.
I think it’s fascinating that for a truffle to propagate, it needs animals to eat them, which is why they let off a very pungent smell, that you either love or hate. I adore them, which is why we took a trip to Umbria for the “Festa del Bosco” (Forest Fest). We eat truffles here in Spain, but as Umbria and Piedmont are truffle meccas, we decided to take a little vacation and bask in the frezy! This trip was plainly culinary, having done the Butchering of the Pig and a truffle hunt in the same weekend. Mind you, the hunt wasn’t really “a hunt”, just a demonstration of how a dog finds the truffle through scent. Then it was on to the tasting part, my favorite of course!
Although I’d never savored an Italian truffle, I’m a connoisseur of Spanish truffles and quickly noticed a vast difference in the preparation methods. In Spain, October through December is dedicated to showcasing truffle-only menus. Typically partaking in a few of these restaurant events, we are generally satisfied though celebrate the seasonality of this little funghi. As most of the dishes are very heavy and rich, pairing truffles with delicacies such as foie gras, cream, eggs and potatoes, make our waistbands stretch to their limit. Interestingly, Italy’s approach to truffle preparation couldn’t be more opposite. Italian cuisine uses the same ingredients as we do in Spain, yet less of them. Italy “highlights” the truffle per se, whereas Spain used it as another layer in the complexity of the dish. Granted, I’m not saying one is better than the other, just completely different approaches. Let’s take the Spanish “Rich Man’s Breakfast” containing creamed potatoes, caramelized artichokes, fried duck egg and foie gras with a generous dusting of fresh black truffle. Delicious but this dish is not for the faint of heart. The Canelon de Trufa is your basic Cannelloni stuffed with chicken and its livers, then covered with a beautiful silky smooth bechamel sauce and topped with truffle. Again, we’re talking a mouthwatering “dense” dish. Now, if we hop across to Italy, we’ll find an omelet topped with truffle; chicken breast stuffed with truffle; pasta, butter and truffle. It’s simple and understated. My absolute favorite was the White Truffle Carbonara. Here, the chef swapped the guanciale, or bacon, for white truffle.
Imagine, two countries who once shared monarchs take the exact same ingredients and create vastly different creations.
I’ve always known Italy’s cuisine as more nuanced and less aggressive than Spanish cuisine. A Spaniard may feel the Italian food can be quite bland in comparison to their own. For me they both reflect their respective cultures perfectly. Spain is a land of many contrasts and layers. Bullfighters in the south, your mad-scientist chefs and avant garde architecture in the north, even fishing in the north-west is sometimes considered a risky sport. From green to arid in just a few hours, hot and cold, ocean and mountain, all in some 195,000 square miles, Spain is a brash, bold and daring country. Italy, on the other hand, is the birthplace of Renaissance, setting the standard for balance and symmetry. A culture that prides itself on its beauty, one doesn’t need to look far to see their passion exemplified in their cars, villages, clothing, and most notably, in the care and love in which they prepare their food – the celebration of one, simple ingredient.
In the end, it’s the differences between towns, regions and countries that create a stunning tapestry to the world. It’s these unique differences that I love. Two completely different approaches to the same basket of ingredients. If we’re open, it allows us to gain a greater insight to one’s culture, to new ideas and ways of approaching a situation. As least to me, this is what life is all about.