White Truffles: Piedmont’s Other Treasure
It’s October— and that means it’s time for white truffles. Just imagining autumn in the Piedmont region of Italy—drinking sumptuous Barolos alongside warm strands of buttery homemade taglierini or “tajarin” (thin, fine ribbons of egg pasta) mounded with shaved white truffles—is enough to send shivers up my spine. Of the more than seventy species of truffles that can be found throughout the world, Piedmont’s hypnotically delicious white truffles are the most highly sought after. Considered ectomycorrhizal fungi (they have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of a nearby plant), they grow a foot or more underground, generally near oak, chestnut, or beech trees. They ripen throughout the late fall; conveniently, at the same time as Piedmont’s grapes.
A variety of compounds contribute to white truffles’ spellbinding, sweaty/musky pungency, notably androstanol, a pheromone also found in the testes and ovaries of humans and the saliva of boars. The substance has a powerful psychological effect on human beings.
Because they grow underground, white truffles cannot be detected by humans and must be found by animals with a more refined sense of smell. Dogs and female pigs are trained to sniff them out. (Pigs are rather less preferred because of their habit of quickly gobbling the truffle after digging it up.) Truffle hunters “trifalaos” hunt alone and secretly, usually at night. The next morning they’ll sell the truffles they find (for $1500 to $4000 per pound as of last year) in hush-hush style (often in a bar) almost like illicit drugs.