Fresh truffles are usually available only to chefs, but I can get them just by walking two blocks to my local farmer’s market.
These truffles, from Alba in Italy’s northwestern Piemonte region, are the real thing. Fidel grew up in Venezuela, studied to be an opera singer in Italy, and now is passionately devoted to introducing the world’s most prized truffles to America. “I feel like Christopher Columbus, teaching Italians about tomatoes,” he says.
As it happens, Fidel’s wife Teresa comes from Alba and it is a truffle-hunting family friend, Paolo Cerutti, who sends the overnight shipment each week. U.S. Customs, bless their bureaucratic hearts, clears the precious but perishable fungi in good time for the Saturday market. It’s been a great year for fresh truffles (both quality and quantity), according to Fidel, and thanks in part to a front-page article in the Tampa Bay Times, there’s usually a crowd at the stand.
I’ve tasted my way through their truffle-flavored honey, preserved truffles, creamy truffle spreads and truffle pasta. But I failed to spring for a fragrant white truffle during its brief November-December season, and that felt like a mistake. Black truffles continue into March, however, so when food-loving friends arrived for a weekend, I asked Fidel to save one for me.
The variety he calls pregiato is known scientifically as Melanosporum and colloquially as the Perigord truffle. It is not as celebrated as Alba’s white truffle, but at about $100 an ounce compared to $220 for the white ones, not as breath-taking a splurge. Those prices reflect the labor and uncertainty of searching for the gnarled fungi, which are unearthed by trained dogs under certain kinds of trees–especially hazelnut and oak, in the case of black truffles.
As Fidel lifted the case cover, a wave of truffle aroma rose. I chose one that weighed 1¼ ounces, ample for the four of us. Wearing white gloves, Fidel gently rubbed it with a soft brush. Wrapped in a paper towel and nestled in a plastic container against a Coolpak, it was mine.
I’ve tasted truffles in restaurants, but my only previous experience in owning a truffle was a white one we brought home from Alba. The heady aroma diminished a little every time we opened the container to sniff and, alas, it had lost most of its oomph by the time I recovered from jet lag enough to cope with it.
This time I was determined not to miss that window of freshness. The Italian approach to truffles to keep the dish simple, allowing the earthy flavor to shine through—so that night we sat down to freshly made tagliatelle with a light sauce of butter, cream, Parmigiano Reggiano, salt and pepper. The truffle shaver acquired during the Alba trip had gone missing. Instead, I used a mandoline on the finest setting. It made satisfactory shavings, substantial enough for us to appreciate not only the aroma, but the somewhat brittle texture of the truffle as we chewed.
We had only consumed about half of our little black knob, so the next morning we tried another classic: softly scrambled eggs topped with black truffle. This time we used a small handheld grater–perfect for the firm texture of a black truffle, thought perhaps not for a white one.
What to do with the remaining fragments? I shoved them into a jar of sea salt, turning it intensely aromatic by the next day. Burying them in Arborio rice would have been another option. I liked Fidel’s suggestion of making a compound butter with grated truffle and freezing it. And one of these days, I’ll try his father-in-law’s trick of combining truffle bits with anchovies–the saltiness preserves the mixture for up to six months–to use as a savory addition to pasta sauces and such.
Truffle oil might come to mind, but despite what many Internet sources say, you can’t stick a piece of truffle in olive oil and expect to end up with delectable truffle oil. Instead, the truffle will likely ferment and turn nasty tasting. Truffle oil is typically made with an essence, which is usually artificial. A more authentic product is a pâté or paste with olive oil plus a high proportion of truffles, and a price tag to match.
All in all, our black truffle weekend was good fun and definitely an education. if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by Fidel’s stand or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, if you really get hooked, consider signing up for the trip he and Teresa are leading next fall, with destinations that include the white truffle auction in Alba and opera season in Parma.