“SOLD!!, for $330,000”, The auctioneer’s gavel drops punctuating the air like the crack of a bat hitting a home run. He has just sold the most expensive food in the world, The white truffle of Alba. The truffle, reminiscent of potato, has been called “the diamond of the kitchen.” -Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (The O.G. foodie, French Epicurean, author of the Physiology of Taste 1852) A truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus that grows symbiotically with the roots of hardwood trees such as oak, cherry, poplar, and linden. The name comes from the Latin word, tūber, meaning “lump”. The shape is knobby and reminiscent of a sunchoke or small potatoes. It has a pale golden color with firm variegated flesh with a pattern similar to ocean coral. The aroma permeates with ambrosial smells ranging from sweet gasoline funk to animal musk, fresh earth, and wet stone minerality. Truffles are truly a transportive ingredient, taking the mind on a trip that awakens a primal sense of enjoyment.
The Italian region of Piedmont is home to some of the best wines and gastronomic treasures of the world. Alba, the crown jewel of the Langhe, a Unesco World Heritage site within this region, is famed for its food, wine, and the infamous white truffle. Alba is a town made of people that love to eat and drink well. They take their meals seriously and enjoy life daily, from a morning cappuccino to aperitivo hour (Similar to happy hour in the U.S. but with bites that are generally inclusive of the price of your drink). They are the kind of people that gather together to enjoy the simple pleasures of life; a place that takes pride in the unique ingredients of the region. The narrow streets, lined with worn cobblestone, meander through the town. The buildings show the history of the people showcasing Baroque, Romanesque, and Gothic architecture; alluding to its medieval past with its heavy stone structures and semi-circular arches. It’s as if you can feel the weight of time in a place like this.
The food of the region is some of my favorite in all of Italy with rich, earthy, lightly sweet flavors of hazelnuts, cured meats, and balsamico. The region is also the home of Nutella- a globally popular spread of chocolate and hazelnut. The pasta is perfect, simple, elegant, like an agnolotti with brown butter and sage finished with a touch of Parmigiano. Or a simple tajarin, the glorious golden, thin pasta of Piemonte made with 40 egg yolks to a kilo of pasta dough. (In contrast, a tagliatelle in Bologna uses 20 yolks for every kg of pasta dough.) The extra eggs make the dough very rich and soft and are rolled out by machine. A typical breakfast includes cappuccino and maybe a simple pastry. This is, of course, all in an effort to save room for lunch which is always a time to sit down and enjoy several courses of food with wine and good company.
How to judge a truffle?
In my opinion, the most important aspect of judging a truffle is the aroma. The heady perfume should lift you off your feet like Pepé Le Pew in love and is a key indicator of a fresh yet fully matured truffle. The scent should hit you from a few meters away. Make sure that the aroma has minimal alcoholic notes as this is a sign that the truffle is degrading
Size- Is bigger better? In general yes but not always.
In general larger truffles command a higher price, this is in part due to the wow factor. With the largest ones being used in a slightly ornamental fashion, displayed by Michelin starred restaurants and reserved for VIP’s and special dinners. These big boys can auction off and off for upwards of €200,000- more than many single-family homes in the states. However, the size of a truffle isn't directly related to its maturity. The size is dictated by the size of the fungal colony of spores in the specific location the truffle grows.
I believe that the shape of a truffle is only important from a culinary standpoint. I personally avoid extremely knobby truffles as they are harder to clean and get nice slices from. If that's not important to you than buy the gnarliest one you can find.
Judging the overall condition is very important when selecting your truffles. The truffles should be cleaned of dirt, and fresh-looking (a dried looking truffle is a sign of age.)
What is a fair price?
I would like to preface the topic of price by saying the average serving size of truffle is between 7-12 grams per person. Of course, some people like to ball out and shave an exorbitant amount, but that is personal preference.
The truffle market, like much in life, is a game of supply and demand. The size of the harvest is dependent on how Mother Nature decides to bless us, and the amount harvested influences the price. Was it a dry year? Was it a hot summer? Was there an unusual amount of pestilence? All of these details play a role in the story of the season. The season is short and is fleeting; it runs from October to early January with the highest prices at the beginning of the season. In short, the prices can fluctuate considerably from year to year.
In general in 2019 retail prices for white truffles in Alba range from €1800/KG for smaller truffles to €3000/KG for the largest ones.
My suggestion is to shop around and look for a quality truffle in the $2000/KG ballpark. You should be able to find a truffle about the size of a golfball for about €40 at this price point.
The Truffle hunt
Imagine being alone in the woods with a trusty, keen-nosed, furry companion at your side. Your warm breath creating vapor clouds in the still, cold morning air. The sound of birds singing their songs, and crushing autumn leaves at your feet. As you walk through the woods the smell of earth rich in clay dominates the air. Suddenly your wet-nosed companion’s ears perk and he is off running. He fervently paws at the earth, signaling to his master of the treasure he has found. His master greets him with a smile, pats him on the head, and treats him to a small piece of Parmigiano. The hunter continues to brush away the earth and reveals what he has been looking for, the white Alba truffle, the fruit of the earth. This is the life of a truffle hunter.
Tartufi & Co.
Admittedly, my hunt was very different, I forewent going on one of the touristic truffle hunts in lieu of simply hunting for a deal. I was armed with the knowledge of the current market price and started my quest to find the best truffle my money could buy. My first stop was at a shop in an alley off the main avenue called, Tartufi & Co. I walked into the shop and was greeted by the young lady behind the counter and what I imagined to be her mother (who was on the phone). The store was filled with all kinds of truffle condiments, preserves, and products( a sign that I found a good spot). As I browsed through the selection, I began to ask myself “where are the truffles?” I asked the young lady,” do you have fresh truffles?” she said yes and led me to a small unrefrigerated case. She pulled out a small selection of truffles wrapped in a plaid tartufi cloth, I Immediately notice that the truffles hadn’t been cleaned well and also seemed to be dry( a sign of old truffles) The aroma was not very potent. I asked the price and the mother still on the phone said €2500KG for the smaller truffles and €2700 for the larger ones. She began to speak Italian to her daughter in a hushed voice and from what I understood she told her that those were old. Fortunately, for me, I speak Spanish and can understand Italian. I politely said, “No Grazie,” and made my way to the next shop.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 18, 12051 Alba CN, Italy
I continued down the main avenue and stopped in a shop, Polleria Ratti Elio. I was recommended this shop by my wife Aubrey who had visited the shop the previous year. Immediately upon entering you are overwhelmed by the heady perfume of woodsy gasoline funk with underlying tones of fresh earth. I knew I was in the right spot! The shop was filled with every truffle product you could imagine local cheese, risotto rice, fresh pasta, artisanal salumi, honey, etc. I asked the gentleman behind the counter,” How much are your truffles?” He began to explain that it depended on the size and ranged from $3000 for the ones the size of a large potato to $1800 for the ones the size of a gumball. I appreciated this man’s candor and told him I was looking for a truffle in the 2k range. He happily said ok and pulled out a tupperware container the size of a shoebox from a low fridge. I opened the box and was overwhelmed by the selection of expertly cleaned, incredibly aromatic walnut-sized truffles in excellent condition. He politely said pick anyone you’d like, I was like a kid in a candy store and had a grin like the Cheshire cat. I narrowed my selection down to three nicely sized and shaped truffles and let my nose be the final judge. I left the shop extremely happy with my selection, the service, and the overall customer experience.
Piazza Elvio Pertinace, 3, 12051 Alba CN, Italy
It would not be fair to talk about truffle shops in Alba without mentioning the grandfather of them all Tartufi Morra. Giacomo Morra was the pioneer of the truffle industry in Alba and was the creator of the Truffle Fair of Alba in 1930, which brought global awareness to the product. Giacomo was a great marketer and would send truffles to the biggest celebrities at the time, including Alfred Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe. A testament to the bond between the city and the shop is that it is the only shop that can use the coat of arms on its logo. I walked into their shop in Piazza Elvio Pertinance and was immediately hit with a heady bouquet of white truffles. The shop was filled with high-end truffle products and other luxury ingredients. I asked the lady behind the counter how much the truffles were per kilo. She said that they start at €2700 per kilo and range upwards of €3500 per kilo the most expensive shop in my hunt. I asked to look for a selection in the lower price range, and no doubt were these truffles exceptional, great aroma, fresh, nicely cleaned, and good sized, but I felt that there wasn't a significant difference from the ones I found at the smaller family-owned operation of Ratti Elio. I grabbed some truffle candies and made my way to grab an espresso.
Cooking with Truffles
So at this point, you know how to select the best truffle for your money and where to find it. Now let’s talk about all the ways you can use them. The one thing you should never do with a White Alba truffle is to cook it! The magic of the truffle is in the volatile aromas in the truffle that degrade with heat. In modern times people have pinpointed the specific molecule 2,4-dithiapentane related to the scent and have even gone to the point of artificially recreating this aroma. (Which I personally find to be only a shadow of the experience... it's like eating commercially farmed strawberries in the winter.)
The easiest way to enjoy them is to find a nice inexpensive truffle shaver, which ubiquitous in Alba and shave them fresh on just about anything. My personal favorites being eggs, pasta, pizza, and risotto. Other great options are to make a compound butter or add any trim to a bottle of good olive oil. You can also layer them in or on a cheese and allow the cheese to take on the perfume. Fat is a great vehicle for capturing aromas and flavors, it has the unique ability to take on the character flavoring the specific product whether it be butter, oil, wheel of brie, or a jar of anchovies. One of my favorite ways to use up any small pieces that I'm not able to shave is to add them to a jar of honey and let it sit for a week or more. The truffle-infused honey is the perfect accompaniment to a cheese plate.
Note: There are other varieties of truffles with which you’re able to cook, but those are of a different variety of black truffles and available at different times of the year.
Check out these links if you'd like more information on truffles: