There’s been a bumper harvest of truffles this year. Italy’s unusually wet summer and warm autumn created the perfect conditions to send usually high prices tumbling. But they’re still not cheap even at £18 for 10grams, so what is it about these knobbly fungi that make us willing to pay such a high price?
As the famous gastronome Brillat Savarin put it, white truffles are the “diamonds of the kitchen”. The exotic and mysterious fruiting bodies of a subterranean fungus, found in just a handful of places in Europe (although the best come from the Langhe area of Piedmont in Northern Italy) lie hidden in the soil, living symbiotically amongst the roots of oak, beech, poplar and hazel trees.
They cannot be cultivated – we haven’t worked out how to replicate these unique and rare growing conditions. The extortionately high prices reflect this, combined with a season which lasts only a couple of months and the challenging job of actually finding these hidden jewels buried under the ground.
Truffles are ‘hunted’ or sniffed out by specially trained dogs (the use of pigs has been banned in Italy because their digging disturbed the soil and ‘mycelium’ filaments which are responsible for their growth). Hunting areas are fiercely protected and shrouded in secrecy, so valuable is the landowners commodity.
The first thing to do when buying a specimen is to pick it up and inhale deeply. The scent should be a pungent mixture of aromas including freshly dug soil, autumnal rain and other animal smells like hot bodies and sex. The weight is also indicative of the quality – they should feel firm and heavy. Once a truffle starts to age, it becomes light and spongy.
In order to get the most from their aromas and for your money, you can store the truffles (wrapped in kitchen towel) with the ingredients which you plan to cook and serve them with – keep them in the fridge in jar of risotto rice or in an air tight container with eggs. The aroma will permeate, leaving you with eggs and rice infused with intense truffle flavour. Use these ingredients to make a simple white risotto, a fresh egg pasta or even just scrambled eggs which you shave paper thin slices of the truffle over the top of. The heat of the cooked dish will then encourage and magnify the scent and flavour of the truffle at the table.
I kept my truffle amongst some farm-fresh eggs for about 12 hours in the fridge, by which time they were reeking with the heady truffle smells. I used the yolks to make a rich and silky pasta dough which I cut into tagliarini – I could smell the truffle aromas in the pasta ribbons as they dried.
Fresh pasta takes just minutes to cook and as soon as it was ready, I tossed it in a pan with butter, seasoned it well with salt and pepper and made an emulsified coating with a sprinkling of parmesan and some of the pasta water.
I piled the silky strands onto warm plates and shaved slivers of marbled truffle over the top. If diamonds were edible, they would certainly taste as good as this.
Rich egg pasta with white truffles
300g ‘00’ flour (this is fine milled pasta flour, or use plain flour as an alternative)
½ tsp fine salt
10 egg yolks (preferably from eggs which you’ve kept in an airtight container with your truffle)
25g unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
20g freshly grated parmesan
Put the flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Add all the yolks and mix with a fork, until the mixture starts to come together to form a crumbly dough. Use your hands to bring the pieces together to form one mass, adding a few teaspoons of cold water if it is too dry. (You can also use an electric mixer with a dough hook for this stage.)
When you have a cohesive dough, knead it gently on a lightly floured surface for about 5 minutes.
Wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes before rolling in a pasta machine.
When you are ready to roll liberally dust your work surface with fine semolina flour or plain flour.
Divide the dough into three equal-sized pieces and squash them into flattish discs.
Put the pasta machine on its widest setting and roll one of the discs of dough through it. Fold the sheet into three (so that you have a rough rectangle), turn it through 90 degrees and roll it though the machine again. Repeat this a couple of times before reducing the setting by one notch and keep going until eventually the machine is two up from its thinnest setting.
Fold the sheet to the same width as the machine, then increase the setting to the widest and send it through a couple more times.
Then reduce the setting of the machine and continue to roll the sheet through, decreasing the setting every time, until you reach the thinnest. By this stage the dough should be smooth and silky.
If the sheet becomes too long and difficult to handle, cut it into shorter lengths.
When the pasta has been rolled through the machine on its thinnest setting, lay the sheet on your floured work surface to dry slightly and continue with the rest of the dough.
When all the dough has been rolled into sheets, cut them into 25cm lengths. You can either cut them into ribbons, using the ribbon cutting attachment on the machine, or by hand, into whichever shape ribbons are desired.
Put the cut pasta on a flat plate or tray, well dusted with semolina flour, until you are ready to cook it. Fresh pasta can be kept for 24 hours in the fridge.
To cook the pasta, bring a large pan of well salted water to the boil.
Melt the butter in a deep sided frying pan and season well with salt and pepper.
Cook the pasta – it will only take about 1minute so keep an eye on it – and when it is ready, scoop it out of the water and into the pan of melted butter, allowing some of the cooking water to splash into the pan with it. Toss well in the butter and add the grated parmesan. Continue to toss to coat each strand, adding more cooking water to create a buttery emulsion. Taste a strand of pasta and add more salt or pepper if necessary before piling it on to warm plates.
Shave the truffle liberally over the top of each nest of pasta and serve immediately.
HOW TO CLEAN YOUR TRUFFLE
I use a clean, dry toothbrush to brush off any clinging sandy dirt and if any remains in the deeper grooves, I use the point of a small knife to scrape it out. Try not to use water if you can help it, but a slightly damp cloth can be brushed over for the final clean if necessary.
Store wrapped in dry kitchen towel in the fridge, changing the kitchen towel every day as the truffle will sweat and moisten it, which speeds up the deterioration.