An Introduction to Truffles and Truffle Hunting

What is a truffle?

Truffles (or tartufi in Italian) are a kind of fungus (or more specifically the fruiting body of the fungus), related to mushrooms, which grow underground among the roots of trees. Truffles live in a symbiotic partnership with the host trees. In exchange for nutrients provided by the truffle the tree provides food in the form of carbohydrates for the truffle. There are many different types of truffle but the most sought-after are the Tuber magnatum (the precious white truffle) and Tuber melanosporum (the precious black truffle) which are found mainly in Italy and France.

What kind of truffles can be found in central Italy?

In Umbria the main kind of truffle is the precious black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) known as thePerigord black truffle but which is also known in Italy as the Tartufo di Spoleto or Tartufo di Norcia. The other main edible black truffles are the black summer truffle also known as the scorzone (Tuber aestivum) and its close cousin the uncinato (Tuber uncinatum). The famous precious white truffle (Tuber magnatum) can also be found in parts of Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche and also a considerably less valuable type of white truffle called bianchetto (Tuber borchii) can also be found.

How are truffles found?

In order for its spores to be scattered truffles rely on being eaten by animals. In order to attract animals they have a particular smell that appeals not only to wild animals but also to chefs and gourmets. The distinctive aroma can also be detected by trained dogs who show their master to the spot where the ripe truffle is to be found. Truffle hunting pigs were used traditionally as they have a natural fondness for truffles and so do not need as much training but it is actually very rare for pigs to be used any more. As well as being harder to transport and less mobile then dogs pigs are also more likely to eat the truffles they find whereas dogs are happy with a piece of biscuit in exchange for their find.

Are there other ways to find truffles?

Digging holes randomly where truffles have been found previously may turn up some truffles but is ultimately counter-productive as it damages the root system of the tree and so reduces the future yield of truffles. While humans can only smell the distinctive truffle smell from up close there are sometimes other indications that can hint at the presence of black truffles such as “burnt ground” orbrulee around the tree where the truffle has suppressed weeds and competition from other plants around the tree roots. A small mound made by an expanding truffle can also sometimes be detected by an experienced truffle hunter. It is even possible, with the aid of a long stick to disturb the forest floor and a keen eye, to detect truffles by looking out for a special kind of fly that lands on or hovers near areas where there are ripe truffles.

What do truffles smell like?

The aroma is unique and has been described, among other things, as being a “musty” smell and also what has been called “forest floor”. The smell of truffles depend on the type of truffle. For example summer truffles are more delicate. The aroma also depends on the ripeness of the truffle and it is said even by the place where they are grown (similar to the concept of terroir in wine growing).

How do you store truffles?

Truffles begin to lose their flavour as soon as they come out of the ground and so should be eaten as soon as possible. They can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge for a few days. Black truffles to be used for cooking can also be frozen and can even be sliced before freezing so they can be used a portion at a time but the best way is always to enjoy them fresh.

What about preserved truffles and truffle oils?

Preserved truffles are only a shadow of the fresh truffles and most “truffled” dishes only contain a tiny percentage of truffle (if any real truffle at all). In fact truffle oils have sometimes never actually come into contact with a truffle at all but depend on chemical substitutes for their aroma.

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