On the Hunt: A Story of a Precious Truffle

Come to me, my Precious!

Fun-gi History

The truffle does not need a special introduction – a little lump wrapped with fragile velvet-like skin with the finest marble veins stretching along its dense flesh. In addition to its well-known flavor and aroma properties, the valuable mushroom, apparently, also boasts supernatural intelligence. It prefers soil with specific chemical composition and is picky about temperature and rainfall. Besides, it also enters into relationships with the roots of certain kinds of trees, like thoroughbred oak and a mighty beech, a noble poplar and spreading hawthorn, a meek linden, and slender birch. The legendary mushroom has been a stumbling block in many philosophical discussions since ancient times as great minds like Socrates and Plutarch fought over the mystery of the origin of the truffle. The ancient Romans glorified it to the point of nicknaming it as "food for kings". Later on, in the Renaissance era, the aroma of the mushroom has gained frenzied popularity, equating with the fabled term of the "fifth element".

Worth its Weight in Gold

Today, some types of truffles still match in value the rarest of jewels. Its high price is due to a number of reasons. For instance, a relatively brief - only three months long - harvest season may cause supply shortages during dry years, yet the demand will stay high. Besides, certain varieties of truffles are impossible to cultivate outside of their natural habitat, where it is quite challenging to harvest them. Truffle hunting in Italy is under the protection of the National Law, which requires tartufaio and trifulau, Italian nicknames for truffle hunters, to have a small shovel, a trained dog, and, of course, a special hunting license. One can obtain the license only in case of completing a designated national training and successfully passing the final examination. Hunters on these "fungi diamonds" pay an annual concession fee and strictly follow a regional truffle collection calendar. Tuber Magnatum Pico, white truffle from Alba, rightfully nicknamed "The precious white truffle" by the British, is recognized as the most valuable among its mushroomy relatives. Its average cost runs up to ten thousand dollars per kilogram. But, in 2014, a white truffle with a record weight of 1.89 kg was sold for $ 61,250 at Sotheby's auction – what a crazy world we live in!

Have a Dog in the Hunt

The white truffle season starts on the 20th of September and lasts until the end of January. You can find this "precious" mushroom only in selected areas of Italy, in Piedmont, Umbria, and Tuscany, less often in the district of Ticino in Switzerland. Hunters from Croatia and Slovenia have pretty good chances to find this treasure as truffles dwell in the Motovun forest, near the Mirna river on the Istrian peninsula. 

Since the 15th century, pigs have been full-fledged participants in the truffle hunt in Italy and France. Simple in care, they did not require much maintenance and training. A funny paradox is that truffle for piglets is natural, familiar food. These animals had no difficulties catching the aroma of the mushroom, even at a distance of over 20 meters. But here's the twist: having discovered a delicacy, without any ceremony, the pigs immediately lashed out to eat it, not to mention their barbarous interactions with a priceless mycelium.

Today, truffle hunting with pigs is trendy in some parts of France. In Italy, this type of search is prohibited, with dogs being widely used for these purposes. The breed can vary, yet the popular ones are Jack Russells, Cocker Spaniels, and English Pointers. What's fascinating is that there are dogs that are literally called "truffles". Lagotto Romagnolo is a medium-sized, peaceful, curly-haired fellow capable of capturing the delicate odor of a treat, even if it is hidden at a depth of half a meter. Such dogs will cost you a truffle itself: hereditary bloodhound-mushroom pickers are exceptionally highly valued and are believed to have particularly keen instincts.

If there are no specific restrictions, like night hunting, dogs will collect truffles before dawn because high humidity levels sharpen dogs' senses of smell, while the absence of alien sounds promotes concentration. As soon as a clever dog finds a truffle mycelium, it gives an owner a signal, and the tartufaio carefully digs out the treasured jewel with the help of a special miniature spatula. Dogs are often fed a truffle as a reward for a successful hunt. Here, at iPREMIUM, we seldom envy these flurry hunters.

A common tourist attraction in Tuscany and Piedmont, a typical truffle hunting tour often features a walk full of educational facts, excitement, and often unexpected findings, with a licensed miner of "fragrant gold" and their faithful four-legged assistant. After the walk, guests are invited to join the sumptuous dinner, where almost every dish is generously covered with fragrant petals of white truffles.

Truffle Pairings

Surprisingly, the truffle itself does not have a strong flavor. Its primary value lies in the aroma. For example, Tuber Magnatum Pico is known for its special musky odor, with delicate garlic, honey, and pepper notes. There's an unspoken rule of carrying out as little blasphemous manipulations as possible with a precious mushroom in gastronomy. After all, if you fry the most expensive truffle in a pan, it will lose all its qualities and turn into an ordinary pan-fried mushroom with no exceptional taste. Despite all its nobility, the truffle prefers simplicity in cooking. His best friends and colleagues are fresh bread, handmade pasta, perfectly prepared risotto, and fresh organic eggs. 

Nevertheless, there are several rare pairings worthy of mentioning. One of them is the classic steak "Tournedos Rossini". The dish, named after the great Italian composer, represents a tower of filet mignon and foie gras, crowned with a heap of truffles. A well-known New York Chef, Daniel Boulud, added a fresh twist on this dish – a hamburger stuffed with foie gras and truffles, packed in a parmesan bun. Another unusual combination is truffle and artichoke fusion. A striking example of such a surprising relationship is the signature dish of the Parisian chef Guy Savoy – a year-round artichoke soup with truffle, served with a lush puff brioche.

Truffle also perfectly works with potatoes. This couple can even be called soul mates. When the Spanish conquistadors found potatoes in the 16th century, they mistook them for fragrant truffle heads. One can recall Benjamin Bruno's signature dish from the legendary Bruno - oven-baked potatoes with two types of truffles. Other excellent pairings include lobsters, asparagus, and cheeses, intimately close to the royal mushrooms in their aromatic palette and taste. 

Want a great appetizer to pair with your wine sessions? Try this trick:
  1. Cut the head of the brie cheese in half.
  2. Cover the bottom with truffle shavings and top with the rest.
  3. Wrap the resulting composition with a wax napkin and leave it in the refrigerator for a day.
  4. Serve at room temperature with your favorite wine.