The two areas of Tuscany most rich in our valuable White Truffles are the lands around San Miniato in the province of Pisa, and also around San Giovanni d’Asso which is south of Siena. Every year, both these towns have truffle festivals which draw truffle-loving visitors, culinary experts, and truffle merchants from all over the world. Between Spring and Summer, kitchens throughout our region celebrate the truffle with a variety of dishes utilizing this costly tuber whose heady aromas mark the days of these gourmet festivals.
But what is a truffle? A truffle is really a rather ugly, wart-flecked fungus that grows on the roots of trees, just below the surface of the ground. They’re approximately golf ball sized, but lumpy and not symmetrical, as a ball would be. And, the size of a truffle can vary from that of a pea to the size of an orange. Our most prized truffles come in a shade of pale yellow, but the tuber comes in many colors, including so dark a brown that it is often called black.
These are the outer colors of the truffle, but it is the inner flesh that is truly prized. Inside the thin crusty outer layer is the gleba, the pulp, which begins as white, and ripens into darker shades until the truffle is ripe, or mature. As we mentioned above, truffles grow in symbiosis with a variety of trees, and they can be as far below the surface as twelve inches, but that is about the greatest depth at which they can grow; they are usually closer to the surface of the ground under a tree. Truffle hunting pigs were once the norm for finding these hidden treasures, but because the pigs so loved to eat the bounty they were hunting, most truffle hunters today use specially trained dogs.
Attempts to cultivate truffles have largely failed; the combination of rare soils, the right tree roots, the proper fecund conditions and more have proved to be just too costly to be doable. The truffle absorbs water and minerals from the tree roots, and the type of tree on which the truffle grows influences the tuber’s flavor, aroma, and pungency.
Truffles have long been prized by gourmets, and they were known and coveted in the days of ancient Rome and Greece. In ancient Rome, they were called “tuberi”. Pliny the Elder made reference to them, saying, “truffles are among those things that are born and grow but can’t be planted.” Interestingly, many ancients were confused as to whether truffles might not be animals rather than plants.
Pope Gregory IV, during the first century, said that he needed truffles to strengthen him in battle. Also during the first century, Saint Ambrose wrote a letter thanking a bishop for sending him a box of truffles. By the 18th century, it was difficult to find a kitchen in a royal court in Europe that was without truffles. Princes, aristocrats and the wealthy were mad for truffles. Noblemen all over France and Italy participated in truffle hunting, using dogs and pigs in their quest to discover these delightful little lumps. And in the 19th century, the great composer Rossini said that he had wept only three times during his life: when his first opera was booed; when he first heard Paganini play the violin; and when a truffle-stuffed turkey fell out of his rowboat and into the Seine!
Our cooking school can actually organize and arrange truffle hunts: they are one of our culinary tour’s additional activities.