White truffles: The diamond of the kitchen

It’s the season of the white truffle, so what better time to learn about the rare and expensive ingredient.

November 10, 2016

November means one thing above all others in the culinary world, the season of the trifola d’Alba Madonna. Or, if you’re not fluent in Italian, the truffle of the White Mother.

One of the most rare and expensive commodities you would ever want to put in your mouth, the white truffle is only found in the countryside around the city of Alba and even then they are not easy to locate.

As well as being tricky to find there's also not long to find them, as the truffle season is very short and some years have a better yield than others. As a result the prices are prone to massive hikes if there's a particularly bad harvest.

In 2007, one of the biggest white truffles ever found, weighing 1.5kg, sold for around $330,000 at auction. That’s the level of expense and exclusivity we’re talking about; they're called the 'diamond of the kitchen' for a reason. 

To find out more about this noble ingredient, and truffles in general, we spoke with the head chef at Cipriani Yas Island. Here’s what he knows. 

What is the history of truffles?

First mentions of truffle can be found as far back as 20th century B.C in Mesopotamia, and got their name from Romans who widely used them in their cuisine. During this time climate conditions around the world were very different, truffle could be found in more regions than it can be today. 

Truffles made their way to the table of western and in particular French kings. It appears that even in ancient times, truffles were expensive and therefore only able to be enjoyed by members of high society. The western interest in truffles also came at a time when reliance on food and spice trade from Asia became less important.

Where and how do you find them?

Truffles fall into the classification of a fungus. They produce an aroma similar to a pheromone that is instinctively attractive to pigs, so truffle hunters historically employed used the animal to find truffles.

Using pigs was banned in the 1980s because they caused too much damage to the surrounding plants in the hunting process. Now, hunters use specially trained dogs to find the truffles buried in the ground near the roots of trees. 

Why are they so valuable?

White truffles are valuable because they are a result of seasonal climate and grow in only a few specific locations around the world, primarily outside Alba, Italy. They are also only harvested during a specific time of year, mainly October and November. Their growth depends on annual rainfall with more moisture aiding their growth. As this is all up to Mother Nature, this makes them rare and each year could produce a different result.

Black truffle on the other hand can be cultivated. This means that black truffle can be grown essentially anywhere. Attempts have been made, but the conditions supporting the growth of white truffle have not been able to be replicated – which again makes them rare and more expensive.

Truffles bigger in size are seen as more valuable since they have reached the perfect combination of growth and freshness. 

What’s the best way to use them in cooking?

For me the best way to eat white truffle is with Tagliolini. White truffle is also very good with eggs, for example in our Uovo in Raviolo, scrambled eggs, or sunny side up with shaved white truffle over the top. You can eat white truffle raw, but not black truffle.