With the holidays approaching, many of you are probably making delectable chocolate truffles. Have you ever wondered why it is called a truffle? Well, it’s because it looks like a truffle, which is actually a fungi found in certain parts of Europe. While we were traveling recently, we visited the 85th International Truffle Festival, held in Alba, Italy. I’d never been to a truffle festival before, but both my husband and son-in-law had experienced a smaller one held near Bologna a couple of years ago. They brought back truffle oil, truffle pasta, truffle cheese, and truffle sausages. Having had such a great time, they were eager to go to the world’s largest.
In Italy and parts of France, hunting truffles is an even bigger passion than hunting morels is here in the Midwest. From what I was able to gather, truffles come in two colors, a nice brown (which is actually termed “white truffles”)
or a rich black. They vary in cost and have a very short shelf-life.
They resemble rough, slightly bumpy balls ranging in size from a pea to a small peach. They grow in wooded areas and late October to mid-November is the season to find them. In olden days, a truffle hunter would take his favorite pig to the woods, since a pig’s sense of smell is much better than a human’s. However, truffle hunting with a pig has a few drawbacks. For one, pigs love to eat truffles, so the hunter has to be very quick to pull the pig away before he eats it. After all, a pig digs with his nose, which is a very short distance from his mouth. I’d guess using a small pig would be a benefit to make that pulling back part easier. Pigs also love to eat acorns, chestnuts, and lots of other things they find buried under the soil, so they can be easily distracted. It must be very frustrating for a hunter to wrestle his pig back, only to find a worthless acorn instead of a valuable truffle. So, now most hunters use well-trained dogs. Apparently any breed of dog with a good nose works well, and dogs are less likely to actually eat the truffles they find.
Truffle hunting can bring rich rewards. There is a huge market for them. This time of year, every good Italian restaurant wants them on the menu and every diner expects them. The general population loves them, and since truffles have a short shelf life, demand is tremendous. Truffles sell for an outrageous price, at least to me. Truffles the size of a small marble were selling for 10-15 euros. The size of an egg could bring 80-100 euros! Each hunter rented a small space, about 2-3′ wide, with a clear dome to cover their truffles. Those rows of stands filled the center of the big convention center. All about the noisy room, people were debating the merits of one truffle or another, or haggling over the price. We watched one couple bargaining with a vendor over a marble-sized white truffle for over half an hour before they finally agreed on a price.
Around the perimeter of the building, much larger booths were selling all things truffle-related: books (Who knew there were so many books on truffles and truffle hunting?)
sausages of all shapes and sizes,
cheeses (lots of booths of cheeses, but I liked this one best)
truffle salt, truffle oil, truffle-flavored rice and pastas in many shapes,
truffle pestos and sauces, and much more.
And, of course there were wine vendors and cake vendors. It was all very festive, with the unique aroma of truffles filling the air. I did indulge in a very small jar of truffle salt, which I will use judiciously to flavor an omelet, a creamy pasta, or perhaps I will attempt to replicate this delicious pizza with white sauce, red cippolli and fungi. It was heavenly!
Just smelling that distinctive aroma of truffles will no doubt bring back the special memories of this interesting day.