Oysters, truffle, foie gras or caviar? I am often asked which, among the world’s rarest and costliest ingredients, I like the best. And I never think twice: I adore truffles, whenever and wherever. And for me, this tuber reaches its highest form in the dish by Antonino Cannavacciuolo: cream of chestnut, burrata cheese, egg yolk marinated in champagne and white truffle.
And the truffle is especially marvellous when it is joined with butter and used to add intense flavour to the sumptuous turkey prepared by Gordon Ramsay, or when you can taste just the hint of it mixed with the tang of vinegar in one of the signature dishes of the chef Quique Da Costa, Hojas Raras (Unsual Leaves).
What is certain is that the truffle is the world’s most expensive tuber: just yesterday, the annual world auction of white truffle sold for 98.000 euro. The French chef Paul Bocuse even transformed the truffle into an element of patriotic history when, in 1975, he dedicated his Soupe aux truffles VGE (black Perigord truffle soup) to the then-president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing – whose initials became a part of one of the most renowned truffle dishes in the world.
And yet, despite its prestige and price, truffle is sublime even beyond the kitchens of the great gourmet chefs.
Try enjoying them in even the most unlikely trattoria in Asti, Piedmont – the capital region of truffle in Northern Italy – where white truffle shavings are often served atop a simple fried egg. It’s nothing less than pure poetry – as long as the egg is perfectly done, of course. Like it would be by Fernand Point, the father of modernist French cooking.
The magic of truffle is felt long before the dish has been finished: to be transformed into a recipe, first the truffle must be found. And finding it is a kind of magic in and of itself. Any true gourmand must pay respects and gratitude to the truffle hunter and his indispensable “weapon”, the dog. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one breed of dog that finds truffles better than others. As my friend Bastian, a youthful almost eighty year-old friend from Piovesi d’Alba, always says, «Pedigree? What pedigree? He just needs a good nose and a good master.». His beloved companion Moro, in fact, is a three year-old mutt.
Some purists insist, however, that the best breed of truffle dogs is the Italian breed of Lagotto, known for its incredible sense of smell, originally from the Emilia Romagna region. Many hunters seek to create an unbeatable mix by cross-breeding the Pointer, Bracco, Setter, Spinone and Border Collie. But Bastian, for example, brushes it all of: in his opinion, it’s purely a matter of training.
He explains that it all begins in a pup’s first days: training a dog for this job is a substantial investment and begins with procuring a good truffle that will become the puppy’s favourite “toy” in the first months of his life. He’ll sniff it, hide it, and chew on his perfumed “rock”. After this phase, you begin to hide the truffle (which, in the meantime, may well need replacing with a new one), burying it just a few centimeters below ground and then, after a while, deeper and deeper. And then, the dog is ready for truffle hunting.
The precious tuber grows in hilly and mountainous regions, finding a perfect habitat together with oak and beech trees, poplars, chestnuts and open forests. The ideal areas for white truffles are the Italian Apennine regions, the most famous being the Piedmont areas around Le Langhe and Monferrato, but we shouldn’t overlook the areas of Acqualagna, in the Marche region, where truffle lovers flock every autumn. After Luigi Gerosa, the chef of Burj Al Arab in Dubai and Andrea Tranchero from the Armani restaurant in Tokyo, this year’s featured chefs are Mauro Uliassi and Massimo Bottura, who held a workshop open to the public, all based around truffle.