Sunday, 23 October 2011

Fabulous Fall Fungi: White Truffles from Alba

Tuber Magnatum Pico,  aka, a White Truffle from Alba with its Cousin, Tuber Melanosporum

Fall is finally in the air. 

Here on the coast, everyone has switched from pretty, brightly coloured summer clothes to a more sombre, heat absorbing black.  Women are winding pretty scarves around their necks to keep out the chill in a way that only French women can.

For me, fall means comfort food like bright green brocoletti, mashed potatoes, porcini and truffles but truffles top my list.
Outside the Truffle Market
Every October for many years, hubby and I jumped in the car and made the 4 or 5 hour pilgrimage from Monaco to Alba for the annual Feste del Tartufo which is a definite must at least once in your lifetime and giddy fun for anyone who is fond of truffles and gastronomy in general.  
Certified Truffles from Inside the Truffle Market

At the centre of the action is the enclosed Truffle Market where thousands of white truffles are on display and for sale.  Entering the market is a bit like finding yourself in a heady, crowded, dreamlike orgy.  It's an intoxicating sensory memory you'll never forget.

Another of my fondest memories from our trips to Alba was while we were leaving it.  After a 3 night stay, we packed the car with truffles and other goodies to share with friends back home and then climbed up the steep staircase back to the hotel to settle the bill.  After about 15 minutes, we returned to the car to find it completely surrounded by excited dogs!  To me this embodied the powerful and seductive qualities of white truffles.
Truffles for Sale on the Pedestrian Street in Alba

For all the hysteria and pretentiousness that white truffles induce, the fact is that they are simply a delicious, rare, fall treat to be generously shared and savoured.

My friends often ask me what to look for when buying a white truffle so I decided to write down and share my top tips. As I point out to them, I'm by no means an expert but after years of buying and serving truffles, here's what I've learned:

1. Buy your truffle from a reputable dealer or a dealer who has a permit to sell them.  The roadside truffle vendor may be charming and and his prices tempting but unless you are experienced at buying truffles, you may want to just take some pictures and move along.
Oh no you din't!

2.  Pick up the truffle and squeeze it between your thumb and index finger.  It should be hard and yield a tiny bit.  If it's spongy,  it's probably overripe. If the vendor won't let you pick up and examine the truffle after you ask to do so, something is definitely fishy.  
Unpretentious Truffles in the Ventimiglia Market
3.  Rub the truffle.  It should be dry and smooth, never slippery.  If you have powder on your fingers afterwards it's most likely that the nefarious vendor has powdered the truffle with corn flour to make it look fresher and give it a healthy glow.  In this case, flee the scene.

4.  Appearance.  Pull out your glasses if you need them and take a close look.  It should be smooth and coloured a mix of grey and tan and free of dark yellow spots, caverns and blemishes.  It should be whole and not broken nor cracked.  The smoother and rounder and larger the truffle, the better and therefore the more expensive.  Do try to find one that is round so it looks pretty when it's shaved over food.  Also be on the look out  for small stones and dirt embedded in the truffle.  You don't want to pay 4,000 a kilo for stones. 

Truffles from Guido da Costigliole Near Alba
5. Smell.  Smell all around the truffle, turning it as you sniff but it's definitely a faux pas to let it touch your nose.  It should smell a bit like honey and licorice mixed with sweet, earthy sex in the forest. An ammonia smell means it's past its prime.  If it doesn't smell pleasant and enticing then it's not a good truffle.

6.  Know your prices.  Usually truffles hit the market at a high price and then become lower towards the end of the season.  Currently they cost around 4,000 per kilo.  If you find a truffle you like, have the vendor weigh it, watch his scale and have him quote you the price.  A truffle a bit smaller than a large marble will weigh about 10 grams, will cost 40 and will serve four.
Now raise your truffle slicer in your right hand and promise me you'll never buy a preserved truffle - they are a nasty bit of business that should be avoided no matter what anyone says.
Going to Alba?
If you're planning to go to Alba then lucky you! Here are some of my recommendations:  

The place to stay is the San Maurizio in Santa Stephano Belbo, a soothing drive through priceless hilly vineyards about 20 minutes from Alba. Their spa and Michelin starred, family run restaurant, Guido da Costigliole make it a fabulous place to cocoon and consume copious amounts of truffle. They have a huge selection of reasonably priced Barolos and Barbarescos that pair perfectly with their Piedmontese cuisine.  If you're a frequent client, you can store your favourite wines in one of their private cellars for your annual visit.

A stop at the market in Asti on Thursday is a must.  There's almost an acre of Italian foods and dry goods vendors to choose from. 

The Tourist office in Alba offers courses in truffle hunting and buying.  It's a good way to quickly educate yourself about white truffles, especially if you're planning to buy one.  

The Langhe Region's Tourism Bureau has an excellent downloadable brochure that describes the complete calendar of events for the 2011 Festival that runs from October 8-November 13th.

Suggested Reading
"Aroma of Truffles" is a really practical guide to white truffles.  It explains how they are collected, truffle traditions, recipes, and a helpful and practical resource guide.
At the esoteric end of the spectrum, "il tartufo d'oro," by Richard Cook, documents the story of a 95,000 truffle, from the annual truffle auction in Alba to the dinner table at the Ritz-Carleton in Hong Kong.  It's a good yarn with spectacular, alluring photographs.

Stay tuned....truffle recipes to follow!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The truffle article reminds me of the wonderful pizza you made using truffle oil. Delicious. Had email troubles and can't reconnect at this moment.
Once I (hopefully) fix that I can resume correspondence.

All the best, Sean