The White Truffles of Alba

Every October, the Piedmont town of Alba changes its nature: from quaint and sleepy town in the heart of Langhe, it becomes the center stage of the most famous fair in the culinary world- the white truffle world market. Truffles are precious and very, very rare: their season only last for a little over two months, from the end of September to the beginning of December, and the best products are brought into the town of Alba for the market.

In Roman times, truffles were regarded as the food of the gods. Recipes dating around that time suggest cooking the precious tubers under ashes and then eat them with honey. In fact, at the time they were considered tubers, and not fungi, as we now classify them- their scientific name is still Tuber Magnatum Pico. During the Middle Age truffles were regarded as dangerous, but in the last two centuries the real value of truffles has become known worldwide, while the regional peasant tradition would still prepare truffle salads for labor!

Truffles are essentially fungi that grow completely within the soil. They get their nutrition through a symbiotic relationship with the tree next to whose roots they grow. You can tell whether a truffle was found under and oak or a walnut tree, as the truffle takes on a very different taste. It has been impossible to farm them, despite all the efforts done in the past 50 years. People have tried to inoculate the roots of certain trees with the spores of the truffles, but while for black truffles they harvested some success, for white truffles there has been none.

White truffles grow in Alba, in the Appenins between Tuscany, Romagna and Marche, and southern in Molise- but they’re not known to grow in any other area of the world, whereas black truffles seems to be a bit more common, with hunting areas In France, Italy and Eastern Europe. As Italians, we’re always partial to white truffle considering the black truffle “the lesser brother”, but there is no rational reason for it! The flavors and the smells of black truffles are very different, and quite honestly black truffles are way more affordable!
When it comes to eating tartufi, the perfect pairing is with foods that don’t compete for flavors. In Italy it is said that la morte del tartufo, “truffle’s perfect pairing”, is with eggs, but you will often find it served in a parmesan risotto whose flavor comes exclusively from the truffle, or with homemade pasta, like tagliatelle. But the best way to experience truffle, in my opinion, is a generous shaving over sunny-side-up eggs. And I don’t even like eggs!

Eggs with Truffles

10 Responses to “The White Truffles of Alba”

  1. Certainly one of the greatest meals I’ve ever eaten included tagliarini ai tartufi bianchi. It was at Castel Grinzane Cavour in La Mora, Piemonte.

    The pasta was so good I can’t remember any of the other courses. I feel lucky I remember where I was. But I’ll never forget those truffles.

    Best regards and buon appetito,
    Skip Lombardi

  2. And now you also have an expert around, directly from Alba, Piedmont!

    Ask me for any advice you could need, this is definitely the field in which I feel most prepared…

  3. Gabriele, you have just won for yourself the title of senior resident truffle expert for Italy in SF!

  4. Gabriele, can you explain the difference in taste between black and white truffles?

    Also: are they used differently in cooking?

    thanks, I am just starting to use them.

  5. Hi Cynthia,
    as far as the difference in taste, you can say black truffles don’t have the same intensity of flavor and smell, and smell is one of the main characteristic of truffles that seems to the reason why we are so attracted to them!

    In terms of preparing truffles, they are always shaved thinly over a dish- whether it’s a pasta dish, a risotto, or carpaccio. A common use in Piedmont is to make a cheese fonduta with the fontina cheese from Valdaosta, and serve it with truffles. Black truffles are used in the same way, although they seem to have a particular affinity with potatoes, so gnocchi dishes turn out 1,000 times better with black truffle than with white!

    Good luck!

    Vanessa

  6. thanks vanessa:

    a few more questions if you would indulge me. When you say they are always shaved thinly, how do they get cooked into foods?

    What do you think about truffle oil? Is it always synthetic?

    thanks,
    cynthia

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  8. [...] Perbacco’s truffle week starts this Tuesday, November 18th, till Friday November 21st. My reservation is for Tuesday night- when are you going to enjoy the real white truffles of Alba? [...]

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