truffles-in-the-rough

After a long and frustrating Italian summer that threatened to mar the entire crop, the highly prized white Alba truffle has finally made its way to Hong Kong. Adele Wong uncovers the fungi’s journey from the Italian soils to the diner’s table.

A Humble Start

White truffles are to chefs what diamonds are to the proverbial woman. These physically unappealing but extremely aromatic lumps of fungi have given many a chef an unadulterated high, and as the first shipments of the season start to arrive in our city’s finer restaurants, these same doting chefs are busy churning out menus to salute this culinary gem.

More aggressive in fragrance than their black truffle cousins, white truffles effortlessly enhance the flavors of any dish with their umami (savory) quality—not unlike that of MSG and soy sauce.    

While white truffles are grown in different parts of Italy (Molise, San Miniato) and Europe (Croatia), the most highly prized of the lot hails from Italy’s Langhe region—in the Alba countryside, to be exact.

“When we speak of white truffles, everybody only thinks of one: the Alba truffle,” says Eugenio Iraci, chef de cuisine at The Mistral.

Countries like Australia and China also have a foot in the truffle market, but “truffles need a particular kind of soil to grow, and this can’t be invented,” says Iraci. “The heritage of the truffle has been so [embedded in Italy] that people realize [what conditions] they need to have truffles. Other countries that discovered they have truffles recently don’t carry the heritage, expertise or methods with them. Without the methods, there is no high-end product, in my opinion.”

“White truffles are a fungus, so they grow during the autumn season in the forests of beech, poplar, oak and, of course, pine. Italy is full of this kind of forest,” says Fabrizio Napolitano, executive chef at Goccia Ristorante. “During the autumn season, the leaves shed and release organic materials on the ground like a fertilizer to create a perfect habitat to nourish the soil [for the truffles to grow].”

Moist and cold nights, a little rain and plenty of sunshine during the day are the preconditions for truffle growth, notes Napolitano.

“Traditionally, white truffles last for 100 days, or about three months, from mid-September to December,” Iraci says. “But this really depends on the weather.”

“This year, the white truffle harvest was very poor in Italy, since we had a long and hot summer. Even September maintained summer temperatures and had very little rain,” Napolitano adds.

So it wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that the bulk of Hong Kong-based restaurants started to receive their truffle orders. With the delayed crop and ensuing market volatility, prices are also skyrocketing.

“This year, the price is very high. At the moment, we are paying $39,000 for 20 to 80 grams, and $45,000 for over 81 grams. The prices are still increasing,” Napolitano says.

Truffles are traditionally gathered by specially trained pigs or dogs who can detect the scent of the truffles underneath the soil.

“The story of the truffle is a very romantic one, but also a very sad one,” Iraci says. “When the truffle season starts, there is inevitably huge competition, and truffle gatherers try to kill other truffle gatherers’ dogs with poisons and traps. There is nothing romantic about it.”

Iraci has also seen some truffle gatherers with missing fingers—the result of trying to prevent their truffle-sniffing pigs from devouring the delicacies their snouts have unearthed.

The Art of the Truffle

The secret to using the white truffle is to alter it as little as possible.

“White truffles should be tasted in the raw state,” says Napolitano. “From my experience, white truffle matches well with fresh cheeses, risotto tossed with sparkling wines and parmesan cheese, a rich butter homemade tagliolini, eggs…all ingredients that can embrace the flavor without overpowering each other.”

Iraci recommends using fall and winter food items to pair with shaved truffles, like chestnuts. Other fail-safe pairings include braised meats and game as well as freshwater and oily fish like salmon and codfish, according to Iraci. Seasonings like butter, olive oil, salt and pepper also bring out the truffle’s aromatic properties.

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