Italian truffles are a culinary delicacy, but these fancy fungi have a long history—and nobody knows this better than the Trifolau family. They’ve harvested truffles for five generations in the Piedmont region of Italy, and today, Natale and Giorgio continue that family legacy.
Whether you want to learn the ins-and-outs of truffle hunting or are looking to know what makes white and black Italian truffles such prized foods, this guide (and the Trifolau family!) are giving you the inside scoop on all things truffles.
Truffles are part of the fungi family and, to get even more specific, they fall under the tuber genus. Basically, all truffles are fungi, but not all fungi are truffles. You with us? Good! Truffles have special characteristics that differentiate them from other fungi, like, say, the kind found in blue cheese. That’s why biologists use the term (tuber) when talking about truffles. It’s their way of saying, “Hey, all these various fungi have something in common, so we’re going to put them together in their own little group and call them truffles.”
Truffles are made up of a few different parts and most have a shape that resembles a bumpy, irregular circle. It’s the color, size, aroma, and taste that varies from truffle to truffle. Truffle hunters use those characteristics to determine whether they’ve found the real thing or a fool’s mushroom when searching for these tasty tubers. Here are two of the most important biological elements of a truffle.
You know the classic fungi you see growing alongside tree roots or in mossy patches in the forest? Well, they spend their life growing above ground. They’re called epigean fungus, if you want to get fancy with it. Truffles are the opposite of those type of fungi. A truffle, also called hypogean fungus, spends its entire life growing in the soil. So, if you’re asking yourself, “Where are truffles found?” the answer is underground. That’s why truffle hunting requires an expert nose, like that of an Italian hunting dog.
“Black truffles are not very deep, sometimes they’re right under the surface,” said Natale, one of the truffle experts who lead our group on tour. “White truffles are commonly found 8–12 inches deep in the soil. When the temperature is lower, you’ll find white truffles sometimes one meter deep. When the ground is humid, it comes to the surface and the dog can catch the aroma.”
Truffles have to grow in harmony with the surrounding trees. When this happens, a fruiting body is produced. This is the start of a truffle’s life cycle, as the fruiting body is what produces the spores that allow a truffle to grow and multiply.
The symbiotic relationship continues and the truffle attaches to the tree’s roots. The truffle gives the tree water, and the tree gives the truffle sugar. This mutual exchange of nutrients takes place for about two months. Once the truffle gets big and strong (thanks to all that sugar from the tree), it grows its own root system. From there, more truffles can grow to become the type of tuber we see an Italian truffle hunting dog dig up or a chef grate over a perfect plate of pasta. “It’s only in the last 3–4 days [of growth] that it really becomes a truffle in its consistency and size,” said truffle hunting expert Natale.
In total, there are 63 types of truffles found across the globe. There are 25 types of truffles growing in Italy in the wild. Truffle lovers can safely eat nine of them and of those, six currently dominate the culinary world. These are the six truffles you’ll hear about and see most frequently while on a trip to Italy.
The Alba white truffle and the black truffle are the most famous and notable truffles in Italy. While the other four have their own delicious tastes and smells, the white and black ones are the king and queen of the Italian truffle family.
The biggest difference between black and white truffles comes down to the color, aroma, and taste. In a nutshell, white truffles have a much stronger smell, but a milder taste. The opposite is true for black truffles. Here’s a snapshot of what makes white and black truffles unique.
Truffles grow all year round, but truffle hunting in Italy only takes place during certain months. To protect the environment and truffle ecosystem, it’s illegal to hunt for truffles in Italy during the month of May, as well as from September 1–20. During the rest of the year, the specific type of truffle you’re looking for will determine when you’ll want to go truffle hunting in Italy. Here’s a quick breakdown of when each prized fungi is ripe for the finding.
If you’re wondering how to find truffles in Italy, it helps to have a trusty dog with a killer sense of smell by your side. That’s where Italian truffle hunting dogs come in. They must be licensed, the owners must pay an annual fee, and the dogs are only allowed to hunt during truffle season. As mentioned above, truffle season in Italy varies from truffle to truffle and from region to region.
“The pheromones are the reason animals are attracted to the truffles,” said expert truffle hunter Natale. “The dog can catch the smell of the truffle from 100 meters away. That’s because the dog’s sense of smell is 100,000 times stronger than a human’s sense of smell. The dogs also have 4,000 extra olfactory receptors compared to humans.” Once the dog sniffs out where the truffles are growing underground, the owner uses a small hoe, called a zappino, to carefully dig it up. This is a key step. You want to make sure you don’t harm the truffle, but you also don’t want to damage the soil. After you dig up the truffle you’ll want to replace the soil so that the root system can continue producing truffles.
“The way to preserve them is very easy,” said truffle expert Natale. “You take a napkin, wrap up the truffle, close it in a glass jar, and put it in the refrigerator. The temperature should be between 37.4 and 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure to change the napkin every day, otherwise it becomes humid and ruins the truffles since they have to stay dry.
The best way to serve white truffles is to thinly shave them raw atop a dish. They should never be served cooked because the beauty is in the aroma. When you cook it, the smell disappears. The Alba white truffle pairs best with pasta made with an egg-based dough. Tour Director Sabra recommends tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, and lasagna, as well as all stuffed types, from tortellini and ravioli to agnolotti.
The power of black truffles comes from their taste, rather than their smell, so they’re best enjoyed cooked. The black truffle also works with pasta, but can be enjoyed atop roasted meat and veggies, too.
Here’s a secret from Natale, who’s a true truffle expert. “When you have to cook eggs with truffles, two to three days before, put the eggs in a box with a piece of truffle,” he said. “The eggs are porous so they will begin to smell of truffle.” You can then use the eggs to make homemade, truffle-scented pasta.
No matter how you choose to enjoy your truffles, just know that a little goes a long way. A few shavings are all it takes for the truffle flavor to come through on your palate.
Get the chance to try white and black truffles on our Food & Wine: Piedmont & Tuscany with America’s Test Kitchen tour →
If you’re looking to indulge in some truffles while on tour in Italy, your best bet is to find an authentic local restaurant serving truffle dishes. While you can pick up truffle-based products from the markets, it’s likely they won’t be made from the real thing.
“You can have oil with truffle, but not oil with the smell of truffle like you find at the shops,” said Natale, an expert truffle hunter. “We prepare this oil every weekend. At the shop it could be sitting there for years. After a week or 10 days, the truffle starts to ferment. This is the reason a large majority of the truffle-based products available on the market also use synthetic aroma.”
Here are two of our favorite places in Italy where you can taste real truffles.