A Road Trip Through Italy and a Primer on White & Black Truffles
As the CEO of ICE, I always have my eyes, ears and taste buds open to find new educational partnerships. Coincidentally, my family vacation plans recently played a key role in forging our newest partnership with Urbani Truffles. Urbani was founded in 1852 near Perugia, Italy, and has grown into the world’s largest distributor of fresh truffles, as well as a developer of a range of consumer products and truffle recipes that use truffle species.
In October, my wife and I were vacationing in Italy and had the chance to visit Urbani’s birthplace in the small town of Sant’Anatolia di Narco, which is near Perugia, in the Italian province of Umbria. We were the guests of Urbani’s CEO, Olga Urbani, the entrepreneurial third-generation leader of the company.
All of this leads to this article for ICE’s blog, where I will try to give you an overview of the category of white and black truffles and discuss Urbani's process for how to find truffles. As for the accompanying photos, many were taken during our day with Urbani in Umbria.
What are Truffles?
Botanically speaking, truffles are fungi belonging to the Tuber genus. Truffles complete their entire life cycle underground, in symbiotic association with trees, typically oak or poplar.
What are the Main Varieties of Edible Truffles?
There are several varieties of edible truffles, and each one has a particular season of availability. The most well-known and highly sought-after include:
- Black Truffle (Tuber melanosporum): The black truffle, also known as the Périgord truffle, is one of the most famous and prized truffle varieties. It is commonly found in regions of France, particularly in the Périgord region, as well as in Spain and Italy. The main season for black truffles is from November to April.
- White Truffle (Tuber magnatum): White truffles are highly aromatic and are considered a delicacy. They are primarily found in the Piedmont region of Italy. The main season for white truffles is short, from October to December.
- Burgundy Truffle (Tuber aestivum): This truffle variety, also known as the summer truffle, is found in many parts of Europe, including France, Italy and Croatia. It is typically available in the summer months, May through September.
- Alba Truffle (Tuber uncinatum): Often referred to as the winter truffle, the Alba truffle is commonly found in the same regions of France and is available during the autumn and winter seasons, from October through January.
There are other areas of the world where truffles are found and developed into varying types of truffle recipes. In the United States, truffle species are found in the Pacific Northwest, particularly in Oregon. They have a different flavor profile compared to European truffles and are highly regarded by chefs and foragers who know how to find truffles in the region.
There is also a developed market for Chinese truffles. They are less expensive and less aromatic than their European counterparts but are still used in various truffle recipes.
These are just a few of the edible truffle varieties, and there are many more species and subspecies found around the world. Each type of truffle has its unique flavor and aroma.
How Do you Describe the Taste of Truffles?
Truffles have a distinctive, intense and complex taste that is highly prized by many chefs and consumers. Like oysters, aged cheese and fish sauce, truffles are in the fifth flavor profile — umami.
- Black truffles have a deep, musky aroma with hints of garlic, chocolate and forest floor.
- White truffles are prized for their intense aroma, which is often likened to garlic, shallots and a combination of spices. Their taste is more delicate compared to black truffles but still quite potent.
- Burgundy truffles have a milder flavor compared to black and white truffles.
- Alba truffles is similar in flavor to the black Perigord truffle.
Using gastronomic references, ICE Los Angeles Campus President Chef Lachlan Sands describes the taste experience of eating truffles as combining the “umami richness of grilled porcinis, the flavor force and aromatic impact of Roquefort cheese and the refined elegance of an earthy Barolo wine.”
Related Pasta and Truffles Recipe:Fettuccine Alfredo with Truffle
Can Truffles Be Grown on Farms or in Greenhouses?
The answer is both yes and no. Agronomists have developed methods to cultivate some varieties of black truffles; mycorrhizal truffle seedlings are grown in greenhouses and then planted in orderly groves. After four to seven years, the truffles will fruit underground.
As for white truffles, so far, botanists, scientists and farmers have not been able to figure out how to cultivate or farm them.
White truffles have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain tree species, forming mycorrhizal associations. These associations involve the exchange of nutrients between the truffle and the tree, which is one reason why truffles are typically found near specific types of trees.
How are White Truffles Found?
There is history and allure around the annual autumn search — in the wild — for white truffles, mostly in the Alba region of Northern Italy. White truffles are typically found in deciduous forests, often near the roots of specific tree species like oak, poplar and hazelnut trees. They are found by trained truffle hunters, known in Italy as “trifolao,” and their dogs, which are usually specially trained truffle dogs such as Lagotto Romagnolo or Springer spaniels.
The hunting process for how to find truffles is for the hunter and their dog to venture into truffle-rich areas, where the dog, using its keen sense of smell, identifies the location of the truffles underground. The dog indicates the presence of a truffle by scratching or digging at the soil surface above the truffle. Once the truffle's location is identified, the truffle hunter carefully digs around the truffle using a small spade or trowel. It's essential to be cautious during this process to avoid damaging the truffle.
White truffles are extremely delicate and susceptible to moisture and heat. After being unearthed, they are gently brushed to remove excess soil and cleaned of any debris. They are then stored in a container with paper towels to maintain their freshness and aroma until they are quickly sold to specialized distributors, like Urbani.
This hunt has evolved into a “seasonal side hustle” for many Italians who know how to find truffles. During the fall, it is estimated that over 70,000 Italians become local truffle hunters. From year to year, successful hunters often try to keep the location of where they found their valuable commodity a secret.
What do Truffles Typically Cost?
The cost of truffles can vary widely based on several factors, including the type of truffle, their availability, the time of year, their quality and the region in which they are sold. Here's a general idea of the price range in 2023:
- White truffles are some of the most sought-after and costly types used in truffle recipes. Prices can be extremely high, typically ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 or more per pound. The cost of white truffles can fluctuate significantly based on availability and demand.
- Black truffles, particularly the Périgord variety from France, are also expensive. Prices can range from $800 to $2,000 or more per pound, depending on the quality and the time of year.
- Burgundy truffles, or summer truffles, are more affordable than black or white truffles. Prices often range from $300 to $800 per pound.
- Oregon truffles are more budget-friendly than their European cousins and generally range from $100 to $400 per pound.
- Chinese truffles are the least expensive truffles. Prices often range from $50 to $150 per pound.
Truffle prices fluctuate due to factors such as the time of the year, the quality of the truffles and market conditions. Prices are typically highest during the peak of truffle season due to limited supply and high demand. Truffle products, such as truffle oil, truffle salt or truffle-infused sauces are more affordable ways to incorporate flavor into truffle recipes without the high cost of fresh truffles.
Currently (end of 2023), white truffle prices are higher than usual because of an unusually hot summer in Italy, followed by an autumn drought, and an increasingly shrinking woodland habitat where the truffles are found.
What are Some Popular Culinary Applications of Truffles?
Truffles are a savory delicacy in the culinary world and are typically used in small quantities to enhance the flavor of various dishes.
Some of the popular uses of white and black truffles include:
- Pasta and Truffles: One of the most classic and popular ways to enjoy white truffles is by shaving thin slices over fresh pasta such as tagliatelle or fettuccine. The heat from the just-cooked pasta releases the truffle slices’ aroma, infusing the dish with a rich, garlicky flavor.
- Scrambled Eggs: White truffles can be shaved onto scrambled eggs, creating a luxurious and aromatic breakfast or brunch dish. The earthy, garlicky notes of the truffle complement the creamy eggs perfectly.
- Risotto: Many truffle recipes involve white truffles that are grated or shaved over a creamy risotto, adding depth and complexity to the dish. A simple preparation with arborio rice, butter, Parmesan cheese and a touch of truffle is a true delicacy. The risotto can be substituted out for mashed potatoes for a similar, simple preparation that highlights the flavor of the truffles.
- Carpaccio: Thin slices of raw beef or other meats or fish can be topped with shaved black or white truffle, or drizzled with truffle oil.
- Chicken and Game: Black truffles are a fantastic accompaniment to poultry and game meats. Some meat and black truffle recipes call for truffles in stuffings for chicken or turkey, or as a topping for roasted or grilled game meats like duck or venison. In France, there is a tradition of inserting shaved black truffles under the skin of roast chicken.
- Foie Gras: Foie gras, a rich duck or goose liver, can be made with small bits of black truffle to increase the indulgent flavor.
- Butter: White truffle butter is a preparation that combines butter with bits of white truffle and truffle oil. It can be used as a condiment to enhance the flavor of bread, meats or vegetables.
- Olive Oil: Truffle oil is typically olive oil that is infused with truffles. Though pasta and truffles are a classic pairing, truffle oil can also be drizzled over a variety of dishes, including salads, pizzas or grilled vegetables, to add a truffle aroma and flavor. Notably, in the last decade, there has been a growing use of chemically-produced truffle oil. It’s what you might find on truffle fries at a national chain restaurant — it doesn’t offer the same taste and olfactory sensation as truffle recipes that use real truffles.
- Sauces: White or black truffles can be infused into sauces like béchamel or cream sauces, adding depth and a rich, earthy flavor. These sauces can be served with various dishes, including meat or pasta.
- Cheese: Black truffles can be used to flavor cheeses, such as Brie or Camembert, by placing a slice of truffle between layers of cheese and allowing them to meld. In Italy, it’s also common to find Pecorino cheese that is infused with bits of black truffle.
- Sushi or Sashimi: High-end sushi and sashimi restaurants may offer truffle-topped creations, using fresh truffle slices to enhance a dish's flavors.
- Desserts: Some creative chefs even make truffle recipes for desserts, such as truffle-infused chocolate ganache, truffle ice cream or truffle honey drizzled over panna cotta.
Due to their intense flavor and aroma, white truffles are best enjoyed sparingly and with dishes that allow their unique characteristics to shine in the fall season such as a simple preparation of pasta and truffles.
What are Some Current American Menu Items that Feature Truffles?
Truffles are a prized ingredient in gourmet cuisine. Many high-end restaurants around the world feature truffle recipes that showcase their unique flavor and aroma. This fall at Restaurant Daniel in New York City, guests can order a supplemental dish with fresh white truffles: either pasta and truffles or risotto and truffles. Appetizer-sized portions are $125 and entrées are $185. At Acquerello in San Francisco, diners are offered a special $495 truffle tasting menu. In Chicago, the famed Italian restaurant Spiaggia is offering guests truffles shaved tableside onto any dish, five grams for $80.
Keep in mind that the availability of truffle dishes may vary by restaurant and region, and they are often offered as seasonal or special menu items due to the limited availability of fresh truffles. These truffles recipes exemplify the versatility of truffles in various culinary creations and the way they can elevate both savory and sweet dishes.
Tip: For those of you who want to order truffles at home, Urbani will rush you a half-ounce for $159 and 1 ounce for $299. Chefs, restaurants, home cooks and even kings and queens around the world turn to Urbani for the gastronomic pleasures of truffles.