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On The Truffle Trail

The best way to eat a truffle is when it’s just been extracted from the earth by truffle hunters, Vir Sanghvi tells more.

india Updated: Sep 29, 2008 10:50 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Most of us never get to see a truffle. When we do experience the taste or the aroma, it is in the form of truffle oil, truffle paste or truffle butter. If we do see truffles, they tend to be of the preserved variety (canned or, more usually, bottled) and their flavour is so minimal that we wonder what the fuss is about.

Over the last decade or so, however, it has been possible to taste fresh truffles in India. During white truffle season in the winter, many hotels and restaurants import them. Ritu Dalmia at Delhi’s Diva used to sell her truffles almost at cost and one of the largest white truffles I have seen was served at the Orient Express restaurant at Delhi’s Taj Palace.

Black truffles are easier to source fresh and there many countries that supply them: Italy, France, and much of Eastern Europe. You also get the much cheaper summer truffle, which looks right but has much less flavour, for much of the year. But no matter how you get your truffles – and the trend in India is to import them fresh now – you’ll nearly always think of them as restaurant phenomena. Rarely will you see fresh truffles on sale in a shop and though truffles are basically mushrooms, they are not the sort of vegetables you will ever find at a subziwallah’s.

<b1>The best way to eat a truffle – or so I have been told – is when it is really, really fresh: when it has just been extracted from the earth. Finding truffles is a complicated business. They grow wild in woods in certain areas and are usually found at the base of a few species of tree: oak, poplar, elm and some others.

We know that animals nibble on truffles and spread the spores through the woods. So scientists have tried to cultivate truffles by injecting the spores into the roots of truffle-friendly trees. This process has met with some success in the case of the black truffle – something like under half of all trees artificially injected with spores yield truffles. But the white truffle – the most expensive and prized truffle of them all – has proved stubbornly resistant to breeding.

Part of the romance of the truffles comes from the mystery of its creation. In Italy and France, small groups of truffle hunters scour the woods with dogs and pigs looking for truffles in secret spots that only they know about. The craft is usually handed down from father to son. Truffle hunters are a secretive breed who rarely part with the tricks of their trade, do not allow outsiders into their fraternity and fight all attempts to regulate or organise the truffle business.

The white truffle grows mainly (Italians would say ‘only’) in Alba, in the Piedmont region of north Italy. The season begins in the second half of September and lasts only for three months or so. The black truffles of Alba, also delicious but less expensive, can be found from January to April.

And from April till November you get the cheaper summer truffle. Though the truffles vary in quality, the process of hunting them is almost exactly the same. The truffle hunter takes his dog, a big stick and a small shovel and sets off for the woods. The dogs have been trained to sniff out truffles and when they begin yelping and scratching at the earth with their paws this usually means that there is a truffle buried in the ground. Black truffles and summer truffles are usually found only a few inches into the soil but white truffles can grow deep – up to two feet – beneath the surface.

I was unlucky to be in Alba before the white truffle season began but Natale Romagnolo, one of the best known truffle hunters of Piedmont, took me on a hunt in the woods near his home to see if we could find any summer truffles. Before we started, Natale introduced me to his brother Giorgio who, he said, was the real truffle ‘nose’ in the family and told me about his craft which they had learned from their father. He showed me his two dogs (English pointers) who had been trained to sniff out truffles and gave me the big stick that truffle hunters carry.

Most foraging activities (looking for wild mushrooms for instance) take place early in the morning but the great thing about truffle hunting is that you can do it at any time of day – or night. In fact, Natale told me, many truffle hunters like going to the woods in the dead of night. That way, nobody knows their secret places.

We set out for the woods in the evening, the dogs leading the way, Giorgio poking the ground with his stick as we walked. We had been going for ten to fifteen minutes when the dogs suddenly began yelping and scratching at the earth. Giorgio stopped to investigate. He went down on all fours and pulled out what the dogs had been sniffing at. He came up with a small truffle about the size of a large channa. “It is a red truffle,” he said, “not good for eating.” I asked if I could smell it. It smelt like a truffle to me and Natale said that unscrupulous food companies sometimes used bits of this truffle in pates and pastes to provide the illusion of real truffle.

Then we wandered some more, stopping by spots where the truffle hunters had found truffles before. It was true, Natale said, that truffles grew near the roots of trees. Except, he said, how do you know where the roots are? He showed me a patch of clear land where he regularly found white truffles in season. “Perhaps the trees around this area have roots that spread far and wide under the ground,” he said. “But how are we to know this from over the ground?”

Fifteen minutes later, the dogs were yapping frantically and scratching at the ground. Giorgio put his nose to the ground. “It is a truffle,” he said and pulled out his shovel to push away the earth. He put his hand in and pulled out at gnarled black summer truffle the size of a golf ball, covered in earth. I smelt it. It did not have the powerful aroma of the genuine black truffle but it was a truffle, no doubt.

I had embarked on this expedition convinced that we would find no truffles so I was a little surprised by the relative ease with which one had been discovered. We could go back and eat it, I suggested. No, said Natale, perhaps we’ll find another one.

And sure enough we did after another ten minutes. This one more or less announced itself. The dogs headed straight for it and the smell was strong enough for us to smell it even before it was out of the ground. It was larger than the first, with a raspberry like texture on the outside and a powerful smell.

We searched some more but when the dogs only came up with a couple of red truffles, we called it a day, pleased that we had found two summer truffles, much more than I had bargained for.

Back at Giorgio’s house, he pulled out some good bread, some excellent salami made by a friend of his and a bottle of local Nebiolo-based wine. Natale made me taste some of his own truffle oil, made by infusing Ligurian olive oil with pieces of summer truffle. It had a delicate flavour very unlike commercial truffle oils but he said it only lasted for a week. After that the truffle flavour vanished.

Natale got some light cream cheese from the region, mashed it gently with his fork and drizzled some home-made truffle oil over it. Then he produced one of the truffles we had found (I suspect he put away the other one) and, using a truffle slicer, grated it all over the cream cheese.

Because it was a summer truffle rather than a full-fledged black truffle (let alone the powerfully aromatic white variety), you needed four slices where one of the real thing would have done. But there was no mistaking the authentic truffle flavour, smelling of dampness, the earth and yes, of sex.

I’ll eat truffles again. But I doubt if anything will beat the experience of going to the woods, watching as the dogs sniff the earth, smelling the truffle as it comes out of the ground and then eating it, half an hour after it has been harvested. Not even a taste of the finest white truffle could match that experience.

If you want to go truffle hunting in Alba, you can email italybyelan at pmehra@finewinesnmore.com