Don’t buy a white truffle before you read this. If you plan to spend a lot of money on a rare product you want the experience to be exquisite and a truffle meal should be one of the best meals of your life. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel let down or come away from the table thinking “What’s the big deal?”
We hope that these points, written from the perspective of the hunter, will give you all the information you need to really delight your senses.
1. The ‘Alba truffle’ is probably not from Alba.
Before we start there is one pressing point that needs to be cleared up. We need to talk about Alba.
‘Alba truffle’ has become the generic name for the tuber magnatum pico or white winter truffle. However not all white truffles come from Alba in Piedmont. White truffles grow in Abruzzo, Tuscany, Emilio Romagna, in fact ‘Alba’ truffles can be found wherever there are suitable growing conditions. So perhaps we need to get rid of this misnomer for once and for all. Should we care? We probably should. The truffle industry is one which is intrinsically full of secrets.Giving truffles their proper name would be a small step towards bringing some much-needed transparency to the truffle industry..This greater clarity might also help to shatter the myth that truffles from Alba are in some way superior to all other white truffles.
However for the moment there is still a good deal of deception when it comes to truffles. In 2012, the Italian forestry corps ordered an investigation into the Asti truffle market (Asti is around 25 km from Alba). After months spent examining the business activities of white truffle dealers, it was found that 90% of white truffles with the Alba label did not originate from there.
The mystique surrounding white truffles can be appealing but it is sensible as a consumer to be armed with the facts.
- Tuber magnatum pico grow in seven different regions of Italy.
- If they are fresh these white truffles will taste and smell equally good.
- All industries rely on a certain amount of hype.
So why then do all truffles dream of becoming an Alba truffle? Why do so many chefs claim that they use nothing else? Well, the Alba truffles do have an enviable reputation. There is no doubt that this small region in Piedmont has been the most successful area at promoting the produce of her earth dating back to the efforts of Giacomo Morra in the late 1940’s.
But does this prized label have any value, is there any substance behind the hype? Any objective truffle hunter would say no.
(Having said that, many Italians are very passionate about the region of their birth which can make it rather difficult to find an objective opinion). Over the years there have been many boasts in the truffling community that this person with an amazing nose or that person with extaordinary tastebuds is able to distinguish an Alba truffle from all other Italian truffles. These claims usually come from people with some sort of agenda. Although there have been studies into whether white truffles are geographically traceable it appears unlikely that humans are capable of telling the difference between a white truffle which is from Umbria, one from Piedmont and one from Abruzzo. There can be very slight variations in the taste of individual truffles however these are attributable to the type of soil the truffle grew in and species of trees under which it developed. Alba truffles taste amazing but that is because tuber magnatum taste amazing.
So where is your Alba truffle actually from? There’s not really much of a way to find out unless you know the hunter who unearthed it and if they trust you enough to reveal their territory, which is doubtful. There is a stringent code of secrecy amongst truffle hunters and no tartufai worth their salt will reveal their stomping grounds. This makes sense but unfortunately for the buyer, makes it even more difficult to check the source of a truffle. Wholesalers have to claim to know where the truffle was found, but in reality they are often as much in the dark as the buyer. Think about it logically, these middlemen deal with dozens of competing truffle hunters. How likely is it that these hunters would reveal the secrets of their trade to a wholesaler who could so easily pass this information on to their rivals?
So to sum up, the Alba truffle you are thinking of buying is probably not from Alba, probably not even from Piedmont. But that does not affect the quality of the truffle. There are other far more important considerations when it comes to selecting a really good white truffle.
Now that is out of the way, let’s look at the 9 more points you need to consider to make sure you get maximum enjoyment out of your truffle.
It’s always a good idea to see, touch and smell the truffle before you agree to buy it but before you get to that stage you need to think about timing and make a plan before you buy.
2. Timing is really important
There’s a time to buy truffles. Don’t buy them prior to the end of the second week of September or after the second week of January. Hunting for white truffles is not permitted outside of this period .There are strict punishments for any transgressions in Italy and hunters risk fines or even getting their licence revoked. This means that tuber magnatum pico purchased outside of this window will be illegal truffles that stand a higher chance of being fake or at least an inferior product.
The very best time for white truffles is after the November new moon when they are at peak quality and also quantity. This may also translate into a drop in price.
Ideally you should eat your truffle within two days of purchasing it. Think about when you are going to eat the truffle as it won’t keep for long. If you are planning to serve it at the weekend it makes sense not to buy it on Monday – it will have lost most of its aroma by then.
3. Plan in advance how you are going to serve the truffle
. If you haven’t used a white truffle in your cooking before then you are in for a real treat. First though, make sure you plan for how you will use it and source the best quality ingredients for the other components of this dish. It goes without saying that the other ingredients should be top-notch and worthy of their accompaniment. So get the best free-range eggs you can find. The golden rule is that you never cook a white truffle. Instead they are shaved on top of the finished dish. What kind of dish? Well to each his own but if you want to experience the full flavour of the truffle then the dish should be something very simple. Maybe a creamy fresh pasta, some scrambled eggs, a risotto or a steak. The flavours of the dish never compete with the truffle which must be the star of the meal.
(Hopefully by the time the season starts my sister-in-law, the beautiful Maria will have finished her post with the family’s favourite white truffle recipes. Hint, hint).
If you plan to eat truffles regularly, it might be worth investing in a truffle shaver. These are special hand-held mini mandolines that allow you to slice the truffle into wafer-thin shavings. . If you don’t have a shaver then use whatever you have in your kitchen, a peeler, a mandoline, a very sharp knife or a razor –Goodfella’s style.
Remember though – the thinner the truffle slices the better!
4. Plan for how you will transport and store the truffle
Truffles need special care and storage so if you need to travel with the truffle then make sure you have planned ahead how you will keep it cool. The optimum temperature to store a white truffle is 4 °C (39 °F) so don’t let it sit around in a warm car for example. We use a special fridge when we travel with truffles but at a push you can use a bottle of frozen water in a tupperware container or an ice pack. Never let the truffle come into direct contact with the ice though always keep it wrapped up. Finally don’t let the truffle get wet whatever you do.
When you get the truffle safely home, you need to take special care of it and store it properly. If you don’t overhandle it then there will be no need to wear gloves. You should definitely not wash the truffle, in fact most hunters would advise not to even clean the truffle excessively until right before you serve it. Keeping a layer of dirt on the surface helps slow down the loss of the truffle’s perfume.
Store your truffle in the fridge in a jar and close the lid tight! You cannot freeze it under any circumstances. Some people say store it in rice, we say don’t store it in rice. Yes, it will make the rice taste great if you plan to make a risotto. So that’s the good news, you will have some nice rice. The bad news is that this will be at the expense of the far more valuable truffle. White truffles stored in rice tend to dry out and will lose their flavour far more quickly than if you store them in a glass jar. Wrap it up in tissue paper, paper towels or even soft cloth. Don’t forget to change this wrapping at least once a day . The wrapping will become damp and once again this will affect the flavour and shelf life of your precious truffle.
Seal the jar well or else everything in your fridge will be imparted with a very strong aroma of truffle. This might be desirable with butter but it doesn’t go so well with milk or tiramisù.
5. Learn how to identify a good truffle
Here I am assuming that you have a chance to see the truffle before you buy it. However even if the truffle has been shipped to you, you will invariably have the final say over whether the product is worth paying for. You may need to send a photograph of the truffle’s flaws. So let’s examine what defects you should be on the look-out for. Here you will also learn what idiosyncracies of the white truffle are acceptable perhaps even desirable. School yourself.
6. Truffle colours
We’re starting nice and easy with the things you do not need to worry about. The first is the colour of the truffle. Tuber magnatum pico can vary in colour, depending on the ground they grew in. The most sought-after are the light yellow or golden truffles but this is just an aesthetic consideration. The colour does not affect the flavour, so darker brown, cream coloured or even greyish truffles are just as good although not as pleasing to the eye. A pinky colour is not a defect either, truffles often have light pink patches, this is not mould, this is quite normal and does not affect the quality in any way.
The colour should only concern you if you want your truffle to make a grand entrance or to be the show-stopper, a golden globe on a velvet cushion. Otherwise don’t worry about it, you have enough to think about.
7. The shape
Another point you don’t need to concern yourself with a great deal. The truffle may be almost perfectly rounded somewhat like a potato. These truffles tend to be highly-prized once again for aesthetic reasons. Other truffles are downright ugly, knobbly and warty, shaped like an alien brain with all kinds of gnarly protuberances. Some truffles have holes in them usually from the tree roots which entwined them as they grew to maturation. Holes (as long as they are not soft) are perfectly acceptable. It is not uncommon to feel disappointed by the look of a truffle. But cheer up, after all this is not a beauty contest. Noone buys truffles because they look good. In short, the shape of the truffle does not affect its taste. Other considerations will affect taste as we will see.
Truffles are often highly irregular in shape. This should not be your main consideration, go for aroma over a shapely form.
8. The smell
This is where things become complicated. This is the hardest information to impart to someone who has yet to try a white truffle.. How do you describe the smell of something as unique as the tuber magnatum? The smell is pungent and unusual and it can unnerve you. Though it was over 30 years ago, I will never forget the first time I tried a truffle as the smell nearly knocked me off my feet. I described it in my diary as a cross between forest earth, cognac, hazelnuts, garlic and cream. Research into the truffle’s distinctive aroma brings up a mixed bag of bizarre descriptions which appear to depend on the nose of the writer.There do seem to be some common traits however, these are that the aroma should be rich and intoxicating with notes of mushroom, hay, garlic and damp earth.
When performing your smell test, sniff the truffle on all sides, checking that the aroma is uniform and there are no patches where the smell appears to alter, especially if it seems acidic. The smell is not exactly pleasant, there’s something musky about it, but make sure the musk is not tinged and that the aroma is fresh and even. It is unlikely that anyone will try to sell you a white truffle which is about to go rotten, the greatest potential danger is being sold a truffle that is 6 or 7 days old. The aroma will not be as strong as it should and your carefully planned, skillfully executed meal simply won’t be that great. What happens is that the truffle’s aroma begins to dissapate slowly but surely from the moment it leaves the ground. The true smell of a fresh truffle is so heady and strong that it should hit you hard. If there’s not that much of a perfume then something is wrong. You probably have been given a truffle that is on its last legs.
The problem is that many companies promise to get your order to you within 24 hours. This means that 24 hours after you place your order, you will receive a truffle of indeterminate age. If your dealer buys directly from hunters then the product will invariably be much fresher than if there are other middlemen involved. Everyone down the line is working as quickly as possible to try to get the product to the customer while it is still fresh and aromatic. However sometimes there are just too many stages to the truffle’s journey. Try to find out these details, reputable dealers will be able to tell you and will enjoy doing so.In turn you will have at least an approximate idea of the age of your truffle.
9. How does it feel…?
This is a little easier than the smell test as texture is gradeable and far easier to put into words. A very hard truffle is undesirable- it shouldn’t feel like a stone – but a soft truffle is far worse. Your ideal truffle should be firm to the touch but with a very slight give.
10. The price tag
Who doesn’t love a bargain? Unfortunately when it comes to truffles a cheaper product is not necessarily a good thing. So make sure you check the going rate for white truffles in your country. There is often a reason why a truffle is sold at a reduction.The seller of a bargain white truffle may be in a hurry to be rid of it before it goes off. So, if the truffle is a lot cheaper than this season’s price, double check the perfume and texture and ask about the approximate age and source of the truffle.
How will you know the going rate for truffles? You are in luck, from the start of the season there will be regular updates on this site, keeping you informed about 2019 white truffle prices for Europe and the USA.
For the hunters, it is always a great thrill to find a beautiful specimen and they always speculate excitedly about which country their truffles will end up in and whose table they will ultimately be served at. So we sincerely look forward to helping you get the most out of your white truffle purchase!
Which is another way of saying -if you have any questions or comments, it would be great to hear from you and hear your side of the story!