What Are Tartufi?
A tartufo (plural tartufi) is a what we call a truffle in Italian. We’re not talking about chocolate truffles, even though they are also delicious!
Tartufi are a kind of tuber, the fruiting body of a type of fungus that spends its whole life underground near tree roots. They look like a small lump of coal, or a knobby black potato (so far so unpromising) but their incredible aroma means that they are highly sought after by chefs worldwide and they can be literally worth their weight in gold.
It might come as a surprise to learn that there are over 200 different species of truffle, but only a few are the aromatic beauties used in the kitchen. The most common edible varieties are black truffle (tuber melanosporum or tartufo nero) and white truffle (tuber magnatum or tartufo biano).
Their flavor is hard to describe. White definitely has more aroma than black, but both have the flavor of woody undergrowth, slightly similar to mushrooms. Just like an oyster encapsulates the taste of the sea, a truffle embodies the taste of a whole forest!
Tartufi are important in many Mediterranean cultures and have some amazing nicknames: “the black diamond”, “the shadowy lady”, “the underground empress”, “the diamond of the kitchen”, “the gem of the poor land” and even the “fairy apple”.
As well as being delicious, truffles can have some surprising health benefits. They are high in antioxidants like vitamin C and lycopene and are packed with carbs, protein, and fiber as well as minerals like calcium, phosphorous, sodium, magnesium, and iron. There are around 300 calories per cup of truffle, but they are so flavorful (and expensive) that the typical truffle ‘shaving’ on a dish of pasta is usually only around 10-12 g (less than half a cup!)
How To Pronounce Tartufi
Tartufi is pronounced tar-TOO-fee.
One truffle is a tartufo, pronounced tar-TOO-foh.
Listen to the pronunciation here:
Where Are Truffles (Tartufi) Found?
Truffles In The Wild
Truffles are found in the wild underground near tree roots.
Truffles in Italy grow mainly in northern and central regions. The most famous region in Italy (and worldwide) for white truffles is Piedmont.
Black truffles in Italy are also found in the center of Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche. These areas have the perfect climate for the truffle to grow. The forests are filled with hazelnut, willow and oak and the weather is a little colder and more humid than the rest of the country.
Truffles also grow in Lombardy, Liguria, the Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Abruzzo, and Molise.
Truffles not only occur naturally, they can be farmed too.
Truffle farms exist in the U.K., the USA and Australia, but they are notoriously difficult to cultivate outside their natural habitat – the Mediterranean soil of Italy, France and Spain. Soil conditions need to be just right and are difficult to replicate outside their ‘home’ countries.
As the truffle market is a large and extremely lucrative one, scientists in many countries are working to see how truffles can be ‘farmed’ commercially. Up to now, however, they have had limited success and the truffle is still a mysterious creature!
Which Countries Have Truffles?
Truffles (tartufi) can be found in:
- France (especially the Périgord area)
And more sparsely or on farms in:
- the United States
- the United Kingdom
Different Types of Tartufi
The main thing to remember is that not all truffles are created equal! Different types of tartufi can be found in different seasons. Here is a short description of the main kinds we find in Italy.
Black Truffles (Tartufi Neri)
Fine black truffle or Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini, to give it its scientific name, is not as rare or as expensive as white truffle but is still hard to find and very much prized. It grows mainly in Piedmont, Le Marche, and Molise. You can find it under the roots of hazelnut trees, as well as oak, linden, and black hornbeam. It likes fertile soil and a lot of sunlight.
Summer black truffle or Tuber Aestivum Vittadini, loves soil with sand and clay. As its name suggests, it is hunted in summer and grows from Piedmont to the slopes of Italy’s Apennine mountains.
Winter black truffle (Tuber Brumale Vittadini) is a little guy that grows in winter on slopes at a medium altitude (1200 – 3000 feet). It can be found almost all over Italy and, like mushrooms, loves humid, shady areas under oaks and hazelnuts.
Smooth black truffle (Tuber Macrosporum Vittadini) grows on the plains. In Italy, you’ll find it around the northern towns of Ferrara and Brescia. It’s also very aromatic and loves a drier climate. These are the same type of truffle that grows spontaneously in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Eastern Europe.
White Truffles (Tartufi Bianchi)
The Queen of Truffles, the Alba White Truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico) is Italy’s finest and most expensive. The areas of Langhe and Monferrato in Piedmont, where hazelnut trees grow, are its spiritual home. The town of Alba is the center of the white truffle economy, with its famous truffle fair held every year in fall.
The Little White Truffle, known as the Bianchetto (Tuber Borchii Vittadini) is widespread in Italy and the rest of Europe. It can grow in hilly and mountainous regions up to 3000 feet. While the Fine White Truffle has its peak season from September to January, the Bianchetto picks up where its big sister leaves off and is harvested from January to April.
How Much Do Truffles Cost?
The short answer is it depends! A truffle is a commodity, like anything else.
In a great season with perfect truffle weather, there may be greater availability and the price falls slightly, while a bad season with scarce availability will cause the price to rise.
A couple of things are true, however, there is never a ‘glut’ of truffles and, in the case of the Alba White Truffle, they can be more expensive per ounce than gold.
Why Are Truffles So Expensive?
- They are difficult to farm
- They are hard to find when growing wild
- They need special transport (in cold storage)
- They are perishable (with a very short lifespan)
- The surrounding trees, soil and weather conditions need to be just so for each type of truffle. They are fussy little creatures!
Alba White Truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pic) will generally cost several thousand dollars per pound. In 2021 an Italian chef named Umberto Bombana bought a white truffle at auction for his restaurant in Hong Kong. The truffle was a gigantic 2 pounds and he paid $117,795!
The Fine Black Truffle (Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini) costs around half the price of the Alba White Truffle (but it’s still pricey!). The one consolation is that a little goes a very long way. You will need only a few shavings to transform a dish into culinary heaven.
At the other end of the scale is the Black Summer Truffle (Tuber Aestivum Vittadini). It will cost a tenth of the price and has a pleasant, earthy flavor but the taste is not really comparable to the two heavy hitters above.
How To Eat Tartufi (Truffles)
‘Less is more’ is key. In Italy we tend to enjoy tartufi on very simple dishes. After all, the truffle is the star and so, whether white or black, it has to have room to shine. It is never cooked as a part of the recipe, it is just shaved and sits on top!
The classic way to enjoy it is with tajarin, a very fine, egg-based, fresh pasta from Piemonte, lightly tossed in butter. The truffle is then shaved over the top with a special truffle shaver.
A thicker ribbon pasta like fettucine is also good.
A simple ‘white’ risotto – rice cooked in broth without the addition of any vegetables – with truffle slices on top.
A lightly fried egg (sunny side up) or a poached egg is perfect with truffle shavings.
Truffle can be a truly indulgent way to top a steak or a steak tartare.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy something like the taste of truffles. There are lots of other products that can make simple pasta dishes, risottos and even salads sing. These include:
- Truffle oil
- Truffle butter
- Truffle salt
Just beware, the ‘truffle’ flavor is often chemically manufactured in a lab. The label will read ‘truffle aroma,’ ‘essence,’ or ‘flavor’ and it’s the chemical 2.4-dithiapentane. It is possible to flavor all of the above with truffle shavings, but the low price point will probably tell you that science, rather than nature is involved – so read the label!
Searching For Truffles In Italy
Do You Need a Dog or a Pig?
This is generally the first question people ask and it’s a good one! Pigs were traditionally used in France in the Périgord region to hunt for truffles.
In fact, pigs were the reason humans found truffles in the first place. Wild pigs would root around, dig up the truffles underground then eat them. Humans were naturally curious. What is this thing that they find irresistible? Maybe we’ll like it too…
The reason pigs went crazy for truffles is that they contain a chemical compound similar to boar testosterone and sows find the musky aroma extremely attractive (this is why truffle pigs are usually female!).
However, there is another animal with a great sense of smell, who is smaller, lighter, easier to load into the back of a FIAT and can be very easily distracted with another treat – a dog!
What Kind Of Dog Looks For Truffles?
The most common breed of dog is the highly intelligent and easily trainable Lagotto Romagnolo. This ancient Italian breed from the Emilia Romagna region of Italy looks like a slightly smaller version of a Labradoodle.
Its superb nose can hunt out truffles buried deep in the earth, but the truth is that almost any dog can be trained to hunt truffles. They just have to have a love of working to please their owner and, of course, like the smell of truffles!
Interesting Fact: The word for a dog’s nose in Italian is ‘tartufo’ (exactly the same as truffle), because it is small, black and bumpy!
Searching for truffles is a complex activity. Competition is fierce and nature is fickle. Just because an area has produced lots of truffles in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be as abundant in the future! And, as with wine growing, the seasons and the weather play a huge part.
In Italy, the periods in which you can harvest different types of truffles are prescribed by law. Digging up a truffle that’s not ‘ripe’ will mean that you stop underground fungus from multiplying. You’ll need a license and will need to protect yourself and your dog from the usual dangers of the forest.
Where To Buy Truffles In Italy
Truffle products can be found all over Italy, but the Mecca for truffle enthusiasts is the northern Italian town of Alba in the Piedmont region. If you are visiting Italy in fall or winter, then a stop at the International White Truffle Fair in Alba is a must.
If you are coming in spring or summer then you may want to head for Tuscany and especially the towns of San Giovanni d’Asso (in the municipality of Montalcino, not far from Siena) and San Miniato near Florence.
Truffles can be found in small shops or alimentari, or in specialty grocery stores like Eataly. You can find truffle products (truffle oils, truffle sauces, etc.) in any grocery store in Italy.
Read more about shopping at grocery stores in Italy!
Bringing Truffles Home As A Souvenir
A product like truffle salt or truffle oil (properly packed) will pose no problem.
A real, fresh truffle is altogether trickier. They are on the USDA’s list of Generally Authorized Non-Propogative Plant Products, but they are sometimes confiscated at customs.
In any case, as they have such a short life (a few days of freshness from being dug up) that the best way to eat them is right here in Italy, as a complement to an expertly made dish.
How To Store Truffles
If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a fresh truffle, eat it within 4-5 days. The ‘sooner the better’ is definitely the key when it comes to consuming it, as it will soon lose its aroma.
You can store it wrapped in kitchen paper inside a jar if it takes you more than a day to eat it.
Some loose shavings can be added to oil or rice to flavor these products, but again they won’t keep that flavor for eternity. Freshness is key!