Truffles have acquired quite a reputation—and even a hint of mystery—over the centuries. They’ve been called the “diamond of the kitchen” by the nineteenth-century foodie Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. And “manna” by the prophet Muhammad.
In Italy, truffles are called tartufi, and they’re often said to be practically worth their weight in gold by international gourmands. They’ve also been called the “gem of poor lands” though. Here’s everything you need to know about this sought-after product.
The Greek historian Plutarch believed truffles grew in places where lightning had struck the soil. He was not alone in being mystified by their origin, but we now know much more about how they grow. Truffles are like mushrooms in that they have a system of root-like structures, and like some mushrooms, they feed off the nutrients of a nearby tree.
Unlike mushrooms, though, truffles never emerge above the surface. This is why finding them requires a culinary dream team: an animal with a highly sophisticated sense of smell, such as a pig or a dog, and an experienced truffle hunter, or trifolau. The trifolau are notorious for their secrecy—they sometimes hunt for truffles at night, or take long, indirect routes to throw off nosy followers.
But once they’ve been found, truffles are openly celebrated. Many towns in regions throughout central and Northern Italy even hold truffle festivals, usually in the fall. The Umbria region is no exception, where the festivals celebrate olive oil and other local culinary delights. Umbria is also home to Sabatino Tartufi, which was founded in 1911 by Sabatino and Giuseppina Balestra. Their grandchildren, who run the company today, pride themselves on using traditional recipes passed down from their grandparents, and also on using real truffles in their products.
Sabatino Tartufi, in addition to carrying on culinary traditions, has also made quite a splash in recent news. They led Oprah Winfrey on a truffle hunting expedition in 2014, and, also in 2014, Sabatino Truffles discovered the world’s largest truffle, auctioning it off for charity. That truffle was an Alba white truffle, which is the most expensive thing a person can eat, after gold leaf.
The Alba white truffle is only one of the aromatic and flavorful truffle types coming from Italy. If all this history is making your mouth water, and you’re ready to make some room for tartufi in your kitchen.
The different types of truffle that are grown in Italy:
Authentic white truffle
Though it’s commonly known as the Alba white truffle, it grows in several other regions besides Alba. The Alba truffle is very delicate and sensitive to heat. Chefs counter this by grating it fresh over simple pasta and egg dishes, letting its strong flavor take the starring role.
On the outside, this truffle looks like the Alba truffle, but because the two ripen at different times, truffle enthusiasts are able to avoid confusion. A bianchetto truffle, also called a white spring truffle, has an aroma that is sharp but not as complex and complete as that of an Alba truffle.
Authentic black truffle
This popular truffle is also known as tartufo pregiato (“fine truffle”) or the “truffle of Norcia” because many agree that best authentic black truffles in Italy come from Norcia in Umbria.
Only an expert trifolau can distinguish this truffle from the authentic black truffle. The two look very much alike and ripen around the same time, but the winter truffle has a less distinctive aroma.
Black summer truffle (or scorzone)
Sometimes called the “black diamond,” this summer truffle has a rougher surface than other black truffles. It is less rare than the other kinds, which makes it more affordable, and it is also hardier and more resistant to losing moisture.
Whichever kind of truffle you choose, you’ll surely be swayed by its sumptuous aroma and flavor—so sumptuous that monks in the Middle Ages were forbidden from eating them, lest they treasure them too much. Luckily, being an epicure is now encouraged and made possible by companies like Sabatino Truffles, who ensure that these gems make their way around the world.