The ‘dolce vita’ flavor of Italy: Truffle Mushrooms
by Ayfer Selamoğlu
When truffles are mentioned, a dazzling magic aroma, a perfect taste, natural aphrodisiac comes to mind. The origin of the rare plant of nature, hidden under the ground, goes back to ancient times. This perfect taste has finally been included in the UNESCO’s ‘cultural heritage’ list. When I heard the news, I remembered my memories: Italy’s diamond had finally found its deserved place with an international crown…
Five years ago, I was in Italy with my dear life partner. This time our stop was the Piedmont region. We especially wanted to see the fascinating Langhe region, which was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014. When we went to Alba, we first settled in our hotel, as usual, and then we started to explore the surroundings. The ancient city of Alba is located on the right bank of the Tanaro river, on a flat area surrounded by hills full of vineyards. It is not a very large municipality. However, there are countless attractions for its population of approximately 30 thousand people and its visitors: art and religion venues, historical buildings, famous towers, and a remarkable gastronomic and wine tradition fascinate visitors. We were both tired and hungry from the ambition to explore the city. We knew that we had come to a region that gave the world different types of pasta and truffles. So at any venue, we didn’t have a chance to have a bad meal. With the comfort of knowing this fact, we entered the place where ‘Trattoria’ was written on its door.
It was a small restaurant like home. The flowers, the candles and the red goblets were placed on the red and white checkered covers. After telling the waiter, “We will eat whatever you recommend,” the response we received was “I can serve you truffle pasta”. This tiny trattoria, with a simple but cute decoration, was inherited from his family. I was very hungry. “Can you bring it now?” he smiled and replied: “Piano, piano… The slower the tastier.” And he said that would serve us pasta as a starter “primi piatti”, but he would bring us an aperetivo plate and house wine first.
While we finished the cheese, salami and prosciutto on our plate with our wine, our pasta arrived. It smelled like musk to my nose. My husband Tarık’s first reaction was, “You’re so hungry, you’ll like whatever they bring you now”. But when the plates were placed in front of us, the different aroma mixed with the steam of the hot pasta fascinated him as well. Our plate consisted of homemade tagliatelle pasta sautéed in butter, thinly sliced raw white truffle and parmesan cheese. At the first bite, I realized that this pasta was the most amazing food I had ever eaten. How could such an ordinary dish have such a fascinating effect?
Trattoria’s owner Andrea said that the secret of this effect lies in the unique flavor of the white mushroom sliced into the pasta. Its name was Tartufo bianco. Latin for ‘pico magnatum’. Because it is very expensive, a diamond is also called a diamond. It is sold for 5 thousand 6 thousand euros per kilo.
Let’s hear more information from Andrea:
“It grows spontaneously under the soil by feeding on the roots of trees such as oak and hazelnut. Trained dogs are tasked with finding invisible mushrooms. In the past, this job was done by pigs with a good smell. But now they use dogs because of clever pigs who can smell and taste mushrooms. Collecting this mushroom is as difficult as finding it. Truffle pickers hit the roads between October and December. The best hunting time is after the rain. Because the smell of truffles is better due to the moistened soil. Dogs recognizing truffles by their distinctive intense scent could also find them easily. However, it is important to remove the fungus from the ground without damaging it! This relies on both the training of the dog and the timely and on-site intervention of the mushroom hunter.”
Andrea says he himself collects truffles from mid-November to mid-December. He explained why, “This period is the most ideal period for me. Because it is during this period that I find the most mature and aromatic ones.”
There are varieties of truffles in the world today. But the white Alba truffle found in the Piedmont region of Italy is considered very valuable because it is rarer and has a unique aroma. Andrea then offered us fonduta. This time it was accompanied by truffles, milk and butter, melted cheese and eggs.
After that, I started researching the history of the truffle with my usual habit. The history of such a rare item should have been special too! I was not wrong…
A common legend is about a farmer who has no children: One day, this farmer saw his pigs dig up tree roots and eat mushrooms. When he saw that nothing happened to his pigs, he began to eat mushrooms too. And our farmer had 13 children, not just one. Truffle, which grows in forested areas near the roots of poplar, oak and linden trees, has been considered a mysterious product for ages. In ancient times, it was believed that it grows in places where lightning strikes. Even today, in Spain, truffles are said to have something to do with the devil. Because the parts where the truffle grows look like scorched earth. According to the still existing superstitions in France, truffle spreads demonic powers and these powers increase their influence especially at night. For this reason, those who pass through the truffle regions at night are often advised to cross.
The table story of the truffle goes back to ancient Egypt. They were eating truffles dipped in goose fat. In an article carved on the wall at that time, It says: “It has no leaves. Bud and flower too. But it has fruit; Whether you eat it or make your tonic, drink it for medicine. How precious is this whole creation.” In ancient Greece and Rome, truffle was thought to give eternal health to the body and soul. For this reason, it has also been used for medicinal purposes. The Greek philosopher Plutarch said that truffles were formed by water, heat and lightning. And over time, it became one of the foods preferred by the nobility due to its rarity and exotic properties.
From the Medici to the Borga and Louis XIV
But our precious mushroom was plunged into darkness during the Middle Ages, with the intention that it would never be harvested again. In this period, when everything that gives pleasure to people is prohibited, they also included truffle among the products of the ‘devil’s invention”. Its re-emergence took place during the Renaissance. Caterina de Medici and Lucrezia Borgia introduced the familiar truffle to European tables. Piedmont’s white truffle was also the most valuable mushroom at that time. The passion of King Louis XIV of France for this mushroom made truffle one of the most prestigious foods in Europe. Truffle hunting turned into an entertainment where palace circles and ambassadors were invited. Towards the middle of the 1800s, the truffle harvest peaked at 2,000 tons per year. However, this situation did not last long. After the First World War, the amount of harvest began to decline, as rural areas were severely damaged. The truffle obtained in the 1960s decreased to 400 tons. Although the natural environments necessary for the growth of truffles are rapidly disappearing, today they are found in limited quantities.
Truffle junkies from Dumas to Rossini
The famous writer Alexandre Dumas, who believed that truffle was an aphrodisiac, called it “sancta sanctorum”. The famous poet Lord Byron also kept a truffle on his desk because he thought it inspired him. Composer Gioacchino Rossini called truffle the “Mozart of mushrooms”. Famous French actor Gerard Depardeau expressed his love for truffles, “I am addicted. I don’t get tired of eating every meal.”
As we were leaving, Andrea came in with a small basket. There were about 5-6 truffles in it. There was about 5 meters between us. Truff’s magical scent was reaching us. He took one of them and called out: “When you go to a restaurant, if you are going to buy a plate with truffles, first see the mushroom. In fact, smell it, touch it. Choose the least rough, rounded and aromatic as possible. Neither too hard nor too soft. They are generally 40-90 grams. You grate 10 grams per serving.” I couldn’t stand it and called out: “But I want to take it home too. What are we gonna do?” This time, with that cute smile again, he said, “If you’re here for another 4-5 days, I wouldn’t recommend buying it. If very fresh, it will last for a week. For this, you need to find someone who supplies restaurants. Store in a tightly closed jar with eggs. The smell of the truffle is also transmitted to the egg. That egg would be perfect without mushrooms. Have a good journey.” We were just in our car when we heard Andrea’s voice. He was waving behind us. “The International Alba White Truffle Fair is held in Alba every year between October and November. I’m waiting for you there too.”