Tuesday, 29 September 2020

What is the truffle? Four curiosities about the King of mushrooms

Il Tartufo Bianco d'Alba - credits: Tino Gerbaldo Il Tartufo Bianco d'Alba - credits: Tino Gerbaldo

The truffle is one of the most mysterious products on earth.

Its finest version, the famous Alba White Truffle (scientific name Tuber magnatum Pico) is one of the most precious foods on the planet, one hundred grams of this delicacy can reach up to 500 euros.

Yet, not much is known about it: it cannot be cultivated in any way, its ways of reproduction are not fully known, and it is not even perfectly clear why it prefers to “pop up” in certain places rather than in others.

For its collection we must rely on the most ancestral method we have available, the nose. And not the human one, but the more developed and precise sense of smell of our four-legged friends: lagotti, terrier, spinoni, bracco or simple mongrels trained to recognize their pungent scent even a few meters underground.

As Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia

"We cannot say with certainty what they are, neither earth nor anything else, if not a callosity of the earth"

In autumn there is a lot of talk about truffles and thousands of people choose the hills of Langhe and Roero to snatch their secret. It is among the woods of these gentle slopes that the Alba White Truffle (also called Precious) finds its favorite habitat and, more importantly, it is alone in this territory that it is enhanced by an excellent cuisine, capable of express all its gastronomic potential in recipes that have become famous all over the world.

Finally, between Langhe and Roero, important truffle fairs are held, such as the International Alba White Truffle Fair and the Regional White Truffle Fair and Roero di Vezza d'Alba wines, where it is possible to buy directly from mani dei trifolao (the famous truffle hunters), the “diamond of the earth” just quarried from the neighboring woods and certified by quality commissions.

But what is truffle really, why does it cost so much and what are its properties? In this post we try to shed some light, starting with the basic questions.


Is the truffle a tuber?

The truffle is not a tuber, but an underground mushroom that completes its entire life cycle underground, living in symbiosis with a superior plant with chlorophyll in a ratio called "mycorrhization". This is why he is also called the "King of mushrooms". The spores of the truffle, which like that of a mushroom are composed of a complex system of filaments, bind to the roots of the host plant and, through this connection, feeds, grows and matures during the autumn.

So why is the prized white truffle called Tuber magnatum Pico?

The scientific "baptism" of the truffle dates back to 1788, when the Turin doctor Pico described it in detail: it is to him that science gave the name of the Alba White Truffle, the most prized, since that moment forever identified as Tuber magnatum Pico .

At this point you may ask, why is it so expensive?

Because the Alba White Truffle is not only very rare, but it cannot be cultivated. To find it, you have to rely on the tradition and experience of the trifolao (truffle hunters) who jealously guard the "maps" of their treasures. The search takes place only at night, with dogs trained for years to recognize the truffle even at a depth of meters. All these characteristics, added to its very short seasonality (September-December) and the fact that it has one of the most particular aromatic profiles in the world (experts have listed over 120 perfumes), make the Alba White Truffle one of the most prestigious products of the international cuisine.

Finally, we want to clarify one of the most talked about legends of the White Truffle: is it or is it not an aphrodisiac product?

Well, it would seem so. The smell of truffles is notoriously aphrodisiac, at least according to the story of Napoleon. The French emperor, it is said, amazed by the amatory performances of one of his officers, asked for the secret of his success. In response, the soldier made him deliver a basket of truffles: exactly nine months later Napoleon II, son of Bonaparte and Maria Luisa of Austria, was born! 

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