Italy boasts the world’s oldest and largest tradition of truffle hunting, which is part of the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list. Over 70,000 licensed hunters wander in the Italian forests at night with their dogs, which are essential to detect the scent of truffles beneath the soil.
But even though 2022 won’t be remembered as a year for truffles in Italy, as persistent drought gave truffle hunters more than a few headaches, truffle-mania is not going to stop anytime soon: a 700-gram nugget of white truffle recently sold for €184,000 at the annual auction in Grinzane Cavour, Piedmont.
The number of tourists in Alba is back to the all-time high of 2019, when the international white truffle fair attracted an estimated 100,000 visitors. Reserving a table at a restaurant offering a truffle-based menu proves challenging – the three-Michelin-star Piazza Duomo restaurant, for example, is fully booked until the end of the season.
One factor that drives the popularity of truffles is their unique ability to transpose the aromas of the earth into edible form. All truffles release musky nuances that recall the beguiling experience of walking in the woods after the rain, but white truffles do so in an especially delicate and refined way.
Truffles in brief
Truffles are hypogeous fungi that grow close to the roots of trees and develop intense aromas when reaching maturity in order to attract animals to eat them and, in doing so, spread the spores.
Different truffle species exist but not all of them are suitable for human consumption. The ones we usually eat are winter black truffle, which grow between December and March, summer black truffle (available between May and August), and white truffle of Alba.
The latter, scientifically named tuber magnatum pico (‘truffle of the lords’), reaches maturity between the beginning of October and January. The lofty prices and reputation of white truffles derive from both the quality and the rarity – they only grow in geographically limited areas, and only close to a small group of specific trees including hornbeams, hazelnuts and downy oaks. The climate must be humid and rainy but not too cold, as ice makes truffle hunting impossible.
Where to find truffles in Italy
White truffle: Langhe (Piedmont), Acqualagna (Marche), San Miniato (Tuscany), Molise, L’Aquila and Chieti (Abruzzo).
Black truffle: Central Italy (especially Umbria), Irpinia (Campania), Alta Langa (Piedmont), Pizzo Calabro and the Pollino area (Calabria).
Wine and truffle food pairings
Truffles are extremely aromatic – you can smell them from metres away! They have little or no taste, however, so the ingredients they are shaved on to make a big difference.
Wine with white truffle
Eggs and cheese
Aged Chardonnay with judicious oak influence works well when shaving truffles on to neutral and creamy dishes such as egg cocotte (baked eggs) and cheese fondue. Examples from Northeast Italy in particular allow the truffle to shine while balancing the dish with a kick of cleansing acidity.
Pasta and risotto
Tajarin (Piedmontese tagliatelle) with butter and risotto al Tartufo bianco (white truffle risotto) also match complex white wines with a little bottle age. Try a quality Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, which can offer complementary honeyed and earthy flavours along with good acidity to balance.
With its lifted aromatics and pinpoint tannins, Carema from Northwestern Piedmont pairs well with carne cruda con tartufo bianco (steak tartare with white truffle). This medium-bodied Nebbiolo-based wine is also a great alternative if you are craving red wine with the previously-mentioned dishes.
Wine with black truffle
Black truffles require slightly bolder and more rustic wines.
Eggs and cheese
When shaved on to Scamorza cheese or savoury crêpes, they match full-bodied white wines made from neutral grapes such as oak-aged Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
Pasta and meat
Strangozzi (Umbrian ‘spaghetti’) served with shaved black truffle, as well as meat courses, go well with medium-weight Sangiovese-based reds. Try Montefalco Rosso from Umbria.