They are as elusive as diamonds, rare gems in the earth that require tedious, skillful searching to locate. When finally found, their bewitching aroma casts such a powerful spell, people spend huge sums to procure them.
White truffles are some of the most prized ingredients in the world of fine dining. They can command prices of thousands of dollars per pound, comparable to expensive varieties of caviar.
Technically, they are the fruits of fungus—not the fungus itself but the part that produces its spores. They grow underground, typically near the roots of trees in northern and central Italy, where the mild climate and humidity from surrounding waters create ideal growing conditions. Contributing to their coveted status is the fact that they only exist in the wild—compared to the less expensive black truffles, which can be cultivated. They’re also only available during the short window between late September and December.
What makes them so beloved? “It’s the ultimate experience of the senses,” said chef Joey Campanaro, who runs several New York City restaurants, including The Little Owl, Market Table, and The Clam. “It’s the aroma on the taste buds.”
Meanwhile, chef Jimmy Bradley of The Red Cat in Chelsea is enthralled by their seasonality and how they announce the arrival of autumn. “It’s a European expression of the American concept of the harvest,” he said. “And they’re more exciting than pumpkins.”
The fragrance of white truffles is reminiscent of a pungent cheese—a musky scent, mixed with the raw freshness of dirt. Upon smelling it, your mouth salivates, as your tastebuds anticipate the umami.
Each truffle has about 120 different aromas, according to Vittorio Giordano, vice president of Urbani, the world’s largest purveyor of truffles, based in Umbria, Italy. And no two truffles smell the same.
Since the Romans first began consuming these delicacies, the key to finding white truffles has been their powerful scent. Traditionally, truffle hunters employed female pigs, which are attracted to the pheromones secreted by the truffles. The problem, though, was that the pigs often ate the prized fungi. Nowadays, truffle hunters train dogs instead.
Drawing from a wealth of knowledge passed down through the generations, hunters know which trees to look for and the best weather conditions for hunting.
A Trusted Tradition
Many chefs and restaurants get their white truffles from Urbani. Back when the company was founded in 1850, truffles were rarely exported to other parts of the world. Today, the company controls about 70 percent of the world’s truffle market.
While Urbani labels all their products with the name of the fungi species, thus indicating the country of origin, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require such labeling. When shopping for truffle products from other purveyors, customers may not be getting the information they need to make their purchase.
“They [consumers] should have the right to know,” Giordano said. He hopes that the FDA can establish labeling rules in the future, just like in Italy—where labeling is required by law.
Italian and French black truffles, for example, are a different species than Chinese black truffles, which results in significantly different prices for the two. “It’s like buying a ring made out of gold [versus] one made out of metal,” he said.
Tips for the Home Cook
When it comes to selecting white truffles, Campanaro has a few criteria. Truffles that grow on chestnut trees are the most pungent, he says, so he looks for a reddish tint on the surface that indicates their provenance. Campanaro also looks for a uniform shape so that there’s maximum surface area when shaving the truffle for a dish. Those from Alba or Italy’s Piedmont region in general are his favorite.
Giordano suggests that people go by the aromas that appeal to them, since each truffle has its own particular scent—and each person senses different odors.
Bradley tests for firmness. “The less firm, the older it is,” he said. White truffles have a short shelf life; they should be consumed as soon as possible.
But if you must store them, Giordano warns against the common practice of placing them in rice. “Truffles are 90 percent water. Rice will absorb the moisture,” he said.
Instead, Campanaro suggests to wrap them in a paper towel and storing them in an airtight container.
Because truffles have such a powerful allure all their own, add them to dishes that let them shine. Scrambled eggs with butter, a homemade pasta or risotto, or even mashed potatoes will do the trick. Simply use a toothbrush to brush off the dirt from the truffle, then shave thin slices over the dish using a truffle slicer.
For the ultimate meal, pair with a Barolo or Barbaresco wine from Piedmont, the same region where white truffles reign.
For a list of New York City restaurants serving delicious white truffle dishes, click here.