This is an Italian dish with an ingredient that you won’t be able to find in the US: Colonnata lard, or lardo di Colonnata in Italian.. This is a pg fat lard made in a small Italian hamlet famous for its marble. The lard is cured in basins of this marble for months before being served. It goes without saying I believe that the USDA does not like lard aged for months in marble in Italian caves. Our loss. This stuff is amazing! Combined with the truffle oil and the meaty and wide tagliatelle, this lard packs a savory punch that will make your head spin.
1 lb tagliatelle pasta, cooked al dente
1 oz colonnata lard
1 oz truffle oil
pinch of salt
Drain pasta, add truffle oil. Serve into bowls and salt to taste. Top with shavings of colonnata lard. Swoon…
If truffles can be found near tree roots while you’re out for a stroll with your dog, why don’t we all get hold of a canine companion, don a pair of boots and head for the woods? Well, actually it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. If it was, we’d all be out there raking in the cash and grating fresh truffles onto our pasta every night.
Unfortunately, truffle hunting is a very precise and difficult skill to master and it’s often passed down through the generations. Prime truffle hunting locations are closely guarded secrets and the whole process can be a closed world to the uninitiated. Us mere mortals simply have to sit back and pay big bucks if we want to sample the extraordinary delights of the truffle.
Different varieties grow in different locations but essentially truffles are found within very close proximity to trees. In fact, they need roots to exist at all and this at least gives truffle hunters a bit of a head start when they set off on a misty morning with an empty basket and a spring in their step. The cunning truffle has managed to outwit man throughout the ages. Whilst other animals, vegetables and minerals have been tamed, reared and cultivated artificially, no one has ever managed to rein in the truffle. It remains defiant and won’t be cultivated
Many varieties of tree prove to be a happy home to the truffle. However, the Perigord remains loyal to the mighty oak and it nestles happily beneath the soil, hiding out until it is snuffled by a pig or a dog and ends up on the dinner plate of a rich restaurant patron. If truffles had brains I wonder what thoughts would be going through them as they are rudely dragged from their dark, warm homes by an overexcited canine.
Although not nearly as renowned as the truffles found in Europe, American truffles are gaining a decent reputation around the world and they also provide a more economical alternative to some of their pricier cousins. Whilst we’d probably all love to dine out on truffles every night if we could afford it, most of us will be lucky to sample a drizzle of truffle oil at best.
However, the American truffle actually makes the idea of trying these gastronomic treats a little bit more within the grasp of the everyday diner. Obviously, they’re still not cheap but then eating out is generally saved for special occasions, so if you can’t treat yourself then, when can you?
The truffle region in America is largely concentrated on the West coast, around California and Oregon. It’s only relatively recently that people have cottoned on to this delightful delicacy that’s sitting there waiting to be discovered. As the truffle has pretty much been the preserve of the European diner, Americans are only just getting a real taste for truffles and the discovery that there are home-harvested varieties makes it all the better.
However, this entire truffle occurrence didn’t happen by chance. Inoculated trees were imported into Oregon in the early 1990s and later, in other states. The results have been pretty amazing with harvests increasing year upon year and truffle fever spreading around the country. While truffles can’t technically be cultivated like other crops, they can be given a bit of a kick up the backside and helped along their way.
Truffle spores are introduced to suitable trees and these trees are then placed in optimum truffle producing conditions. So, a bit like a blind date where you have the likes and dislikes of both parties but ultimately have no idea if they’re going to get on with each other. In this case, it seems to have worked.
If the French are proud of their black truffles, then the Italians are equally as proud of the great Alba white truffle. They are often referred to as ‘white diamonds’ due to their rarity and desirability and their location and gathering is shrouded in much the same secrecy as their French counterparts. The truffle hunters of the Piedmont region of Italy are known as trifolau and truffle season is one of the most important times of the year in the region. Although they’re called white truffles, the colour can vary quite drastically and many of the truffles will be closer to brown in colour, than white. The colour, shape and flavour of the truffle are all dependent on the type of tree and the soil, as well as other factors such as rain levels and temperature. When the truffle hunt is on, however, no one really cares about such details. It’s every man and his dog for himself and the best team will uncover the most truffles.
To make the whole experience appear even more magical, most truffle hunting occurs at night-time. It’s believed that this is when the scent is strongest, which makes it easier for the dogs to locate their prizes. Personally I think it’s more to do with the romantic notion of going hunting in the dark: man and beast working together for a common cause. Or, maybe it’s just so the hunters can’t be followed and their favourite and most lucrative spots discovered by impostors trying their luck or hoping to strike it lucky. This nightly ritual continues from September to December as the truffle season runs its course and hungry restaurateurs around the world wait with baited breath for the latest batch of top-quality Alba truffles to arrive at their doors. Then it’s on to the serious business of eating one of the world’s most expensive delicacies.
No one can argue that the French aren’t passionate about their food and passions rarely run higher than when they’re discussing the virtues of the black, or Perigord, truffle. It has all the hallmarks of a great tradition about it: the rarity, the difficulty in finding it; the worldwide appeal; and perhaps most importantly, its reputation as one of the truly great delicacies of the world.
As it is only found around oak trees and in quite a small area, the Perigord is greatly prized and held in high esteem. Harvesting and selling these truffles is a serious business and although there are no real hard and fast rules with regards to locating and cultivating, this actually makes the truffle more endearing and enigmatic. The smallest truffles tend to be about 2 cm in diameter and they usually lie approximately 20 cm underground so there is absolutely no chance of stumbling upon them by accident. They are detectable only by their smell, which is why pigs and dogs, with their acute sense of smell, are used to search for truffles.
The annual black truffle harvest has declined pretty significantly over recent years. Perhaps it’s due to over harvesting or just because more people are out searching for them. After all, it’s a bit of a money-spinner if you’re good at it. Truffles can take years to reach maturity so I suppose it’s a bit like fishing; maybe you just need to leave an area alone for a while until stocks are replenished. It’s also believed that the war had a pretty dramatic impact on the availability of truffles. So many trees were destroyed during the war that the natural habitat was no longer there. It takes time for a mighty oak tree to grow.
The truffle is a curiously diverse enigma with many different guises. The truffle enthusiast will be well aware of the thirty-odd varieties of this delicacy, however, it’s possible to get by with just a little basic knowledge. Let’s keep it simple by finding out a bit about the most well known varieties to begin with.
This is also known as the Perigord truffle, as this is the region in France that accounts for almost half of the black truffle haul. They’re also found in Spain and Italy with a few also coming from Croatia. The little nugget is one of the most expensive foods in the world, gram for gram, and it’s highly prized. Appearance-wise it’s not much to look at with its hard knobbly surface and it’s found around the roots of oak trees.
The white or Alba truffle is mostly found in Italy, again with a small amount from Croatia. The area surrounding Alba is where most of these truffles are harvested, hence the name. While the black truffle grows only with oak, the white truffle is a little less picky and is happy to reside amongst the roots of hazel, poplar and beech, as well. These delicate truffles need to be consumed as soon as possible after they surface from the earth in order to maximise the aroma and flavour.
As the name suggests, these are found in China. They are not considered to be of such high quality as the mighty Perigord or Alba truffles and there are actually a few different varieties that have become collectively known as the Chinese truffle. They tend to be sold for less than their European counterparts. This makes them a more viable option for someone on a budget who wants to indulge in one of the world’s greatest ingredients without having to re-mortgage their house.
There is evidence of musings about truffles from as far back as 400 BC. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus mentioned them and indeed, they were a hot topic of conversation amongst the deep thinkers of the time. The reason being that no one was quite sure how they came into existence and there were various conflicting schools of thought.
On one side of the bench, the more logical brains assumed that the soil was pretty instrumental in their development and that rainwater had a big part to play. However, other more wacky theories heralded thunder and lightening as playing a key role in the creation of the truffle. Whatever was bantered back and forth in the steam rooms of bathhouses, it was definitely the basis for a meaty argument.
The truffle has always been a controversial little foodstuff. During the Middle Ages, it was actually linked to witchcraft, as people deemed that the incredibly powerful aroma couldn’t possibly be natural and that truffles must therefore be the devil’s work. They were undoubtedly still consumed during this time but probably only under cover of darkness and with someone keeping lookout for any nosey neighbours who happened to be wandering past the house at dinnertime.
Buying and selling truffles during this time was certainly not encouraged, however, as superstitions declined truffles were once again recognised as a remarkable delicacy. They were brought back into the open and were enjoyed by the rich and powerful.
The great thing about truffles is that they can’t be cultivated on an organised or reliable scale and this is definitely one of the reasons that they remain so expensive and sought after. However, this also means that harvests can vary greatly and there is no guarantee about the varieties and numbers that come onto the market during truffle season.
Truffles have a lengthy and particularly illustrious history. They have long been prized as the gourmet equivalent of gold and have been treated as such. It makes a pleasant change for something with little or no aesthetic appeal to be held in such high regard. In our world of desired perfection the truffle really does buck the trend.
Still, I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, and I dare say that many people find these wrinkled little nuggets amazingly attractive. Grizzly old truffle hunters and high-end chefs certainly do. And, if the looks don’t grab you, then chances are the flavour will. Looks can certainly be deceiving and the truffle is a prime example of this, with knockout aromas and tastes oozing out of the rather innocuous looking exterior.
Thousands of years ago, the origin of the truffle was a mystery that perplexed even the most astute minds. I am always amazed by how people first discovered certain foodstuffs. Presumably, at some point many moons ago, someone was either particularly bored or particularly hungry and happened across a couple of truffles. Having said that, it’s not actually all that easy to just trip over a truffle: a certain amount of perseverance and searching is required.
Perhaps they were just digging about in the dirt for a lost axe handle or sabre-tooth necklace. Whatever the reason, the brave soul obviously decided that it was worth trying them out in the cooking pot. What a prize indeed when the accidental truffle hunter placed a couple of delicate shavings over the top of their dinner of boiled roots. Gastronomy was truly born that day and truffles have been at the top of every gourmand’s wish list ever since.
Posted in truffles
While it’s true that they more closely resemble a clod of earth or a dirty pebble, truffles are actually a type of edible mushroom. Probably not similar to any kind of mushroom you’ll pick up in the supermarket but a mushroom all the same. Chances are you won’t spot them in too many supermarkets anyway. If you did, they would more than likely be under lock and key, watched over by a burly security guard in case anyone tried to remove a few precious shavings with a cheese grater they had hidden under their coat.
‘True’ truffles are always found near trees. The technical term for this is mycorrhiza and it basically means that trees and truffles are like bread and butter – a perfect combination. Other fungi have jumped on the bandwagon and call themselves truffles but beware of anything that hasn’t been dug up by a tree root; you might be paying over the odds for an impostor.
Even if you know what you’re looking for and reckon you can spot a truffle at twenty paces, you might still be baffled by the sheer variety on offer. They also come in numerous different colours and textures, to confuse you even more. They can be black, white, smooth, wrinkled and, of course, they vary a great deal in size from no more than a pea to the size of an orange or even larger.
The bigger the size, the greater the prize, and particularly large truffles are very highly sought after and fetch eye-watering amounts of money. As larger specimens are extremely rare, truffle hunters the world over are constantly on the lookout for a huge truffle that will net them a fortune. They could then put their feet up and allow their pigs to get back to rolling around in mud instead of sniffing around tree roots.