‘Tis the season to indulge–pick your poison! The adventurous in us might splurge on Black Périgord Truffles or White Piedmont (Alba) Truffles.
Truffles are fungi whose fruiting body grows underground. The plant itself consists of an extensive web of filaments so fine as to be invisible. These filaments, or mycelium, link up with the roots of certain trees and shrubs in what is called a “mycorrhizal” relationship. The fungus gets nourishment from the tree’s decomposing leaves, and the tree uses the mycelium as an extended root system to draw up nutrients from the soil.
Enough science talk, I’m starting to sound like Alton Brown. But I will say that both Black Périgord and White Piedmont truffles are extremely rare, and their aromas intense. They cannot be successfully cultivated – they only grow with certain types of trees, in a limited range of climates, and in certain soils (limestone is preferred). And their season is limited: depending on the region, they reach maturity between November and March.
The Black Périgord truffle is named for the Périgord region in France, though it can be found in southern France, Italy and Spain and still be called a Périgord truffle. Production has diminished considerably in the past century: in 1900, France produced around 1,100 tons of this truffle; we’re now weighing in around 22 tons per year. Generally grown in Oak forests, its appearance is black with a skin that has been called both warty and diamond-like. The flesh ranges from chocolate brown to nearly black with delicate white veining.
Then we have the White Piedmont truffle or “Alba madonna” (Tuber magnatum), which comes from the Langhe area of the Piedmont region in northern Italy and, most famously, in the countryside around the city of Alba. This variety is grown symbiotically with Oak, Hazel, Poplar and Beech trees. Historically pigs have been used to track down the fruiting fungi, but more recently dogs have been trained to locate the truffles as the pigs simply eat the delicious morsels when they’re discovered– can’t say I blame them!
When it comes to handling either variety, we recommend extreme care. Avoid touching them directly with your hands–moisture makes them slimy. To clean, use a soft, dry brush to remove excess dirt. Store them in an airtight container, wrapped in paper towel or submerged in Arborio rice (if you do, use the rice later to make a truffle risotto!). Or leave them in a carton of eggs overnight and your eggs will absorb the heady aroma. Keep them refrigerated, and use them within a week. At Bi-Rite, we prefer to store them for you wrapped in an unbleached paper towel, since rice will absorb a lot of the aroma.
Finally, the fun part: how to eat them?? For white truffles, keep it simple: shave them paper thin with a sharp knife or mandolin, and scatter raw slices over a simple dish like poached eggs, a plate of hot buttered pasta, or creamy risotto. While white truffles are rarely cooked, black truffles release more aroma when heated. We recommend shaving them thin, and adding the shavings to sauces and risottos while cooking, stuffing into roulades and foie gras terrines, or cooking them with eggs, lamb, sweetbreads, seafood or poultry.
Next time you’re standing at the deli counter, ask us for a whiff of one. Or take one home to share a whiff with the ones you love. We only get our hands on them at this time of year!