It’s that time of year again. The countryside around our house is full of grappa-heartened hunters taking pot shots at anything that moves, occasionally cinghiale, sometimes each other. It’s the hunting season, and for me that means truffle hunting. Le Marche is a truffle-producing region, and November is when white truffles are at their best.
Getting hold of some decent specimens is a food-lovers excuse to cast off their aprons, don their walking boots and set off on an adventure: Five years ago I was lucky enough to participate on a truffle-hunting weekend in San Ginesio organised by Truffle Hunter experts Nigel Whitehouse and his wife Omi Pears, and hosted by chef Monica Santoleri. I’ve always been disappointed with the truffles I’ve bought in the past, and this was the opportunity to sniff, study and taste the difference between white and black truffles.I discovered white truffles like to grow in the soils of the very steep, shadow side of forested valleys. So despite some glorious autumn weather, the sun was always just behind the ridge as we scrambled after Nando and his dogs, Luna and Stella. Black truffles on the other hand prefer sunny more gently sloping hillsides, but hunters like Nando won’t go after these while the more lucrative white variety is in season (from now until the new year). So if you find yourself doing this, remember to pack your hiking stick and thermals!
The dogs are small, smooth coated mongrels (all the better to sniff their way through the undergrowth) and are trained from puppyhood to obey voice commands and investigate trees that Nando thinks might harbour truffles in their roots. Thus our progress through the forest felt random – dogs don’t work in straight lines – though in fact he was doing broad sweeps of the area.
Foxes, wild boar and hunters from as far away as Turin are all competitors. Nando was cross as hunters had sneaked in the day before, perhaps even earlier that day – being a country man he didn’t really approve of our 9.30 start – and cleared the secret spot he’d selected. The dogs did discover marble sized truffles, but these were left to continue growing; our bounty actually came from Nando’s fridge. But this didn’t detract from the sense of achievement and the feeling we could eat anything we liked having had our 3-hour Outward Bound experience.
I love their aroma, described by New Zealand truffle expert Gareth Renowden as reminiscent of‘old socks and sex’; white truffles also have a distinct whiff of garlic, while black ones smell sweeter.
Thanks to bubbly Monica we learnt this pungent perfume is fragile: white truffles should not be cooked but added at the end of cooking, while black truffles benefit from a brief amount of cooking. Aided with a glass of prosecco, we chopped and stirred our way through the cooking class on the first evening using black truffles: bruschetta, risotto, and an excellent-for-vegetarians cabbage parcel dish. We snacked on a truffled pizza bianca – without tomato sauce but with mozzarella, mushrooms and rocket. Note to self – in the absence of fresh truffle, one could use truffle oil to good effect with this pizza. Dribble over the pizza just before serving.
I also discovered truffle lovers are congenial folk and my fellow classmates were good company for the wine tasting and restaurant outings we managed to fit in. To find out more, take a look at www.trufflehunter.co.uk.
When it comes to white truffles the pasta dish, tagliatelle al tartufo bianco, is a classic and I think the recipe from Anna del Conte’s excellent book Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes is the best. The secret is a white wine and butter reduction folded into the pasta with Parmesan cheese, prior to scattering the grated truffle over each serving. Nando crumbles small tartufi bianci over his tagliatelle – so keep his muscular-handed generosity in mind. Yes, they are expensive, but don’t buy one then to be mean with it! For 4 people:
80g salted butter
60ml white wine
400g good quality dried tagliatelle (or home made, but don’t bother with the long life ‘fresh’ stuff)
1 walnut size white truffle
Melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the wine and let the mixture reduce by about half. Boil the pasta according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Drain, reserving a cup or so of pasta water in case the tagliatelle needs moistening a bit; I don’t think it does, but it’s a matter of taste.
Stir the wine sauce and Parmesan through the pasta and divide between four plates before grating the truffle over each serving. Eat immediately.