Saturday, 1 June 2013

Truffles - Piedmonts White Gold

Truffles are one of Italy's most ancient delicacies, even the ancient Romans had a taste for the wonderful white truffles of Piedmont. In the ancient cooking text de re coquinaria (On the art of cooking), which was attributed to the Romans, there are a few recipes for white truffles. In fact the ancient Romans called white truffles "the noble mushroom" and often used it at ceremonial and celebratory banquets. The Romans believed that truffles grew under trees, which Jupiter, the ruler of the forces of nature, had previously struck with his lightening bolts. However, as we now know Truffles a a fungi which grows underground, living in symbiosis with the root systems of the oaks, poplars and hazel bushes. But despite this scientific proof the Italian theories as to where truffles come from is far more romantic. Some believe that truffles grow where the shards of moonlight break through the canopy of trees and fall to the ground, others believe they form where'd the summer lightening hits the earth and others even believe it is where the seaman from forest stags fall to the earth duty ring the mating season.

Despite all this scientific research into truffles we still have no means of increasing supply or even influencing their growth or artificially cultivate them, as we do so sucessfully with mushrooms. Even is athe roots of an oak are prepared with truffle spores, they still take ten years to grow, if at all. It is due to this failure that the trifalau, truffle hunter, as they a known in Piedmont, comes into their own. Piedmont has an abundance of forests, making it a classic region for truffles. It is in these forests that probably Piedmont's most valuable export grows, the white Alba truffle. These Alba truffles have been highly regarded and sought after for hundreds of years. Historical documents as far back as 1380 describe how the prince of Acaja gave the princess Bona some white truffles as a gift and marriage proposal, also during the siege of Alba, in the early 1300's, Charles V helped himself to great portions of this regional delicacy.

In the Langhe, the hilly countryside around Alba, truffle fever breaks out around October every year, when the first of the regions white truffles begin to ripen. From then, up until the end of the truffle season on the 31st the area is awash with truffle madness. There are around fifty varieties of truffle, but only a few of them are edible. As the truffle grow underground it is difficult to locate and collect, therefore established truffle locations are a closely guarded secret, often passed down from father to son. Truffles are a serious business and cases of intimidation, actual bodily harm and even murder have been associated with the secret world of the trifulau. People have even tried using magic and witchcraft and there are many tales, anecdote and mysterious rituals allegedly practices in the hills around Alba. Bu instead of seeking help from divine sources or the dark side a good trifulau needs nothing more than his witts and his trusty truffle dog, a trained half-breed dog whose keen sense of smell are worth a lot of money. Pigs were once used but due to their lack of discipline and their tendency to eat whatever they found, dogs are now considered the safer option. Dogs like truffles too but they are usually content with a few biscuits or a piece of bread soaked in truffle oil in exchange for the truffle.

When the phase of the moons cycle, or the barometer or any number of secret indicators, known only o the trifulau of course, promise favourable conditions the trifalau will go to work, often under the cover of darkness, when it is believed the dogs a less distracted than in the daylight hours and concentrate on the important job of truffle hunting. At the break of day they return from the forests into Alba with their treasud catch, still encased in its soil to protect it from deterioration, to sell their truffles. Depending on the day, and on the amount of truffles found, the prices can easily reach 350 - 650 euro for 4oz (100 grams).

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