Sought after by gourmet chefs, cherished by foodies, hunted by pigs and dogs; for decades, truffles have been the subject of myths and thought to have magical qualities. Perhaps because these delicious fungi are unique in their flavor and aroma, and exquisitely finicky, making them difficult to cultivate. Truffles are ectomycorrhizal, meaning they require a symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific trees to live. They occur in the wild in areas where the ideal conditions exist in terms of humidity, temperature, soil acidity, and tree roots species. Truffles are indigenous to the northern and central Italian regions of Umbria and Tuscany.
There are three types of truffles commonly found which are differentiated by the season in which they grow to maturity. White truffles are pungent and are found from September to December; black (winter) truffles (tuber melanosporum vitt) are earthy and found from December to early March, and the delicate aromatic burgundy truffles are found from September to December. Summer black and white truffles can be found from May to August.
How are truffles hunted?
The “original” truffle hunters were pigs, however the pigs had a tendency to eat the truffles. Today there are dogs which are specially trained to hunt truffles, and in Italy these pups are rewarded with bites of parmigiano regiano cheese. The traditional truffle hunting dog is the Lagotto Romagnolo, however any intelligent and motivated dog breed with a good nose can be trained to hunt truffles. There are even schools in the United States which offer such dog training.
Why are truffles so expensive?
Because truffles are only available a few months out of the year, and are finicky in their growing conditions, they tend to be pricey. So far attempts to cultivate them have been disappointing; although they have finally had some success in Australia.
How to use truffles in cuisine
Fresh truffles should be cleaned with a dry toothbrush. Use a metal slicer to thinly shave truffles over pasta, risotto, eggs, or polenta. Resist the urge to cook them! Cooking will destroy their delicate flavor and aroma. When not in season, you can still get some delicious truffle flavor by seasoning with truffle salt or truffle butter (read the ingredients). But buyer beware– products labeled as “truffle oil” very often are made with chemicals that mimic the aroma of truffles but are not made with actual truffles.
Where can I buy some truffles or truffle products before I leave Rome???
Finally, I get to tell you about my favorite gourmet food shop in Rome, Italy. Volpetti, located in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome, is a foodie’s paradise (as is the neighborhood, which is full of delightful family run restaurants with authentic Roman specialties, plus a bustling food and produce market- the Testaccio market). Not only does Volpetti carry fresh seasonal truffles, but they also have an impressive selection of gourmet food products, highly-rated Italian wines, pasta, biscotti, parmigiano regiano and other aged Italian cheeses, prosciutto di San Daniele, and balsamic vinegars that are aged to a sweet honey consistency. If you happen to be a truffle-aficionado, there is one cheese that you must try at Volpetti- their pecorino with black truffle. It. Will. Change. Your. Life. Volpetti is located about a 5 minute walk from the Piramide metro station (metro line B).
I had the good fortune to meet the owner of Volpetti during my last shopping binge, and he was kind enough to educate me about the different truffle varieties. Matteo Tomljanovich has been in the food industry for a number of years, and brought his entrepreneurial spirit to the Volpetti shop in 2015 when he bought the store from the Volpetti family. In addition to running the salumeria, he has revamped the family’s restaurant located next door, reopening it as the Taverna Volpetti. The restaurant and wine bar (in the former Volpetti Piu cafeteria space) serves a buffet lunch with daily specials cooked to order, and serves aperitivos and dinner in the evenings. I had their pasta carbonara for lunch during my last visit, which was cooked perfectly al dente and had a melt-in-your-mouth carbonara that left me dreaming about it for days thereafter. Hit up Taverna Volpetti for lunch, then take your shopping bags over to Volpetti to get your favorite gourmet foods vacuum-sealed and ready to take home on the plane. Their cheeses will keep in their vacuum-sealed packages for up to 3 months in your refrigerator.