Some women lust after diamonds and pearls. Not me. What I really wanted was my very own fresh truffle: a “black diamond”. Or as the Italian composer Rossini called them “the Mozart of mushrooms”.
We were in La Bottega di Teresa (see earlier post “Bringing Home the Bacon”) choosing a little cheese, when Ascanto unscrewed the lid of a large glass jar and invited us to sniff its contents. It was an unmistakeable aroma: earthy, musty, black truffles. “How much would the smallest one cost?” I enquired in my best Italian, expecting it to be a very large number. “Four Euros” Ascanto responded.
And that is why yesterday I fulfilled my truffle-owning dream.
The truffle has long been prized. The Romans ate them, no doubt with a lark’s tongue chaser. Premium truffles are found in France, Spain and Italy. Umbria is the best known Italian truffle region, although they are found elsewhere in the country.
It is a subterranean fungus that grows amongst the roots of trees in dense woodland. Truffles are normally found buried a few centimetres underground, so they cannot be spotted with the naked eye. Pigs were commonly used to sniff out these treasures, however pigs like a nice truffle so they often ate their discoveries. Now it is more common for trained dogs – who don’t enjoy the taste – to hunt for them.
The fruit of the truffle is a tuber, covered with a tough but edible skin. Nine varieties are recognised in Italy as being edible, but the black and white truffles are the most widely known. Black truffles can be harvested for most of the year, but the Winter variety has a more pungent aroma and a stronger taste, so they tend to be cripplingly expensive. I assumed mine was a black Summer truffle based on the season and the reasonable cost.
We have eaten truffle in many different ways since arriving in Umbria. My only previous experience of them had been at superior restaurants where it was used as a garnish rather than an ingredient. Here in Umbria it is lavished in pasta dishes, added to salami and, in salsa form, spread thickly on bruschetta.
I soaked my precious truffle in cold water and cleaned it gently. I thinly sliced some of it and roughly chopped the remainder.
I mixed the chopped fragments with a good olive oil and seasoning, then tossed it into some fresh pasta. Finally I added the sliced truffle – e vai! Eaten with a glass of crisp white wine. Four euros well spent.