Underground Treasure

Through mid-December, rare, pricey white truffles from the Piedmont region of Italy are casting their spell

One day in mid-October, the kitchenstaff at Spiaggia, a four-star Italian restaurant in Chicago, was preparing for the day ahead when the cry went out: The delivery is here! A small crowd gathered in the kitchen as a painstakingly wrapped airmail package was opened, releasing a distinctively pungent aroma into the air. "Che bel' profumo!" exclaimed one staffer. The season's first shipment of white truffles had arrived.

Similar scenes have played out in restaurants across the country since the start of the white truffle season, which runs from mid-October through mid-December. Few things are as eagerly anticipated by chefs and gourmands, or inspire such rhapsodic transports, as the Tuber Magnatum, the official name for this mushroom kin that grows underground, mainly among the roots of particular trees, such as oak and poplar. The white truffle has been called the Mozart of mushrooms and is said to contain pheromones, which contribute to its powerful scent and reputation as an aphrodisiac.

The truffle has always had a mystique. And at a time when high-end restaurant kitchens are acting a lot like chemistry labs (BW--Sept. 11), the truffle is decidedly Old World. It remains stubbornly resistant to cultivation, growing only in areas favored with a particular combination of soil, moisture, and trees--in particular, the Piedmont region of northern Italy. With limited supply and clamoring world demand, truffle hunting has become a furtive affair. Hunters, aided by specially trained dogs that can sniff out the subterranean delicacies, fan out into the woods under cover of night to avoid giving away their choice spots. One good-sized truffle--golf-ball-size or larger--can fetch a small fortune. Prices this year are as much as $2,500 a pound, and last year, a rare 2.6 pound white truffle commanded a record 95,000 euros, or $121,000, at a charity auction in Italy.

The flavor of the white truffle is notoriously hard to describe. Nothing in our vocabulary quite invokes its unique combination of nutty, musky earthiness and vanilla- and floral-noted delicacy. "Parmigiano, garlic, the sweetness of white button mushrooms, chestnuts. It's a little like asking: "'What color is red?'" says Alessandro Stratta, chef at Alex at the Wynn Las Vegas, who grew up in Piedmont.

"THE PLAINER, THE BETTER"

If all this seems like an awful lot of fuss over a fungus, you haven't tried one. At a recent lunch at Bottega del Vino, a New York outpost of the storied restaurant in Verona, Italy, the white truffle's charms are on full display. A waiter arrives with a course of baby pumpkins filled with fonduta, a soft fondue-style cheese, and porcini mushroom. Accompanying him is chef Massimiliano Convertini, who proudly displays what looks like a small, knobby potato with an intricate pattern of veins. He begins slicing the knob with a mandoline. Tawny snowflakes float down, and an intense, almost intoxicating fragrance spreads through the room. Nearby diners put down their forks and stare.

The pumpkin dish is sheer bliss, the truffle punctuating the creamy cheese and sweet pumpkin flesh. On beef carpaccio, a generous sprinkling of truffle transforms a standard dish into a sensual delight, while showered onto risotto it melts into a mellow, buttery harmony.

When it comes to truffles, the best approach is to choose simple, neutral- flavored bases that enhance but don't overwhelm--think risotto, pasta, or even scrambled eggs. "The plainer, the better," says Tony Mantuano, chef and co-owner of Spiaggia, who plans to get three pounds of the tubers flown in every week through the end of the season. "You spend so much money on them, you don't want to cover them up." Unlike the black truffle, tartufo bianco isn't cooked but eaten raw, usually thinly shaved or grated. (Tip: Avoid grocery store truffle oils. They are usually artificially flavored.)

Many restaurants will suggest dishes on their menus to which truffles can be added for a supplemental fee, typically $6 to $10 a gram. That can quickly add up for a modest five- or six-gram serving--enough to cover the food. But the best way to sample the full potential of the truffle is to indulge in one of the many special tasting menus offered by restaurants in November, when tartufi are at their best and most abundant. It will cost you--anywhere from $150 to $1,000 or more a person. Wine pairings may be added at an extra cost. The renowned Barolo made in Piedmont is a nice companion.

Despite the lofty prices, chefs insist they aren't making much of a profit and possibly even lose money. Truffles must be flown in and served promptly since they lose their pungency the longer they're out of the ground. And some chefs admit to a heavy hand with the slicer. "You've got to indulge," says chef Stratta. "People who know what white truffles are don't even blink at the price."

By Amy Cortese

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