Fall in Italy is a season of warm colors, festivals and, of course, incredible food. With every season come new tastes and culinary traditions in each region of Italy and one of the most popular, which has made its way across the Atlantic to the U.S., is the truffle.
These small, dirt-covered delicacies don’t look like much at first glance: they are, in fact, a species of fungus that grow underground, and are related to mushrooms. In the past, truffles were found by pigs, which farmers used to sniff out the truffles in the undergrowth of forests in regions such as Piemonte, as well as Molise, Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia Romagna, and Le Marche.
Pigs, as it so happens, are smart animals, and farmers had a difficult time stopping the pigs from eating the truffles before they could actually get their hands on the nugget-sized delicacies. Today, the truffle hunter (also known as a tartufaio or trifolau) instead trains and uses dogs to sniff out the truffles. It is dirty work, involving hours spent tramping through forests, digging through mud and underbrush, often returning home empty-handed. Perhaps part of the allure of truffles is that they are not something that can be cultivated – they must always be hunted, sought after, dug up from the earth.
Truffles are used in a variety of Italian (and international) dishes. Known for their rich, earthy flavors, truffles are can often be found in creamy pasta sauces, shaved raw over risotto, in carpaccio, or even on bruschetta and crostini. Regardless of how it’s eaten, truffles – especially white truffles – have come to be associated with culinary decadence.
Ancient Romans often ate a cousin of today’s truffles known as a terfez, or “desert truffle.” Truffles came back in style in the Renaissance, where they were eaten almost exclusively in royal courts. Today, truffles are still royal in some regards: a large, high-quality white truffle from Italy can sell for over $100,000 (although you can find black truffle products for much less).
This past weekend, the Union League of Philadelphia and NIAF’s 2016 Region of Honor, Piemonte, hosted the XVII World Alba White Truffle Charity Auction simultaneously in both Philadelphia, and Torino. Proceeds from some of the 2.5 lb truffles will go to NIAF and our scholarship programs, which support hundreds of students in their college educations.
So if you’re in the mood for earthy, seasonal Italian dishes, indulge in some truffles this autumn and pretend – at least for just a moment – that you’re eating gold (it might cost as much).