If we can’t travel to Italy or perch in a grand restaurant’s dining room this autumn, is it really still truffle season? Yes, and we should find a way to enjoy one of life’s most singular earthy delights, because the truffles themselves are cause for a much-needed moment of not only celebration and indulgence but also a feeling of being transported. Many will wax lyrical about certain foods reminding them of another place but few ingredients are quite so pungently evocative as truffles; their aroma and taste are completely transportative. And let’s face it, we’re all in need of a little bit of that right now.
I’m not talking about black truffles, which, while not exactly ubiquitous, are more easily procurable and not nearly as complex both in terms of sourcing or, more crucially, flavor. Instead, I am talking about getting after the good gear—the white ones, fresh tartufo bianco. These mercurial and covetable tubers, famously from Italy’s Langhe in the northwestern region of Piedmont (and also Le Marche if you see our regional feature), are a kind of culinary holy grail, an indulgence that sits at the heart of the gastronomic pantheon alongside unicorn wines and obscure seafood delicacies. They are a by-word of supply-and-demand luxury, and unfortunately associated with a dated style of egregious luxury — one that is not only out of step with the times but also usually places the truffle in the hands of those who would do it harm. And by harm I mean preparing it in fussy and pretentious ways that do no justice to this miracle of flavor and nature. And for five times the price.
I am not pretending they aren’t precious and therefore pricey, especially in scarce truffle (and bull market) years. However, a little goes a long way, and they needn’t be ridiculous if treated with respect and simple discernment and shared with friends and family. As it happens, this year is likely the best year ever to experience them at home. Ironically, with the drop in demand from restaurants and signs of a beautiful bumper crop, now is the time to buy a tartufo bianco for home. As intimidating as it may seem, cooking with white truffles is less an exercise in cheffy ego and more in home-cook humility.
Perhaps the best food experience of my life was when, as a university student in Piedmont, 12 of us spent the day in the surrounding hazelnut groves near the vineyards, searching out their knobby ugliness hidden near the roots. We took them back, wrapped in a cloth like Hobbits with the ring, to one of our tiny rooms, where each of us created the most basic of dishes. I served it over soft-scrambled eggs, Ana-lena did a basic risotto, and Georges procured fresh tajarin, the local fresh egg pasta tossed simply in butter. And then again, one of the worst food experiences of my life was at a Midtown restaurant, where an acquaintance looking to impress not only me (seriously wrong crowd) but the rest of the dining room asked the server to “make it rain” as a statusy, hundreds-of-dollars supplement over mine and my equally embarrassed friends’ dishes. I think one was lobster, chicken and another a seafood dish, each with elaborate flavors and all piping hot. The result, of course, was that the flavors disappeared or were mutated almost precisely as they hit the plate. Like the saying that doing cocaine is God’s way of telling you you have too much money, well, for some, white truffles are the culinary equal. A criminal waste of money. (Side note, but worth mentioning for full transparency’s sake, hearing the phrase “Make America Great Again” perhaps added to my general distaste for the evening.)
So in the spirit of good taste and sharing, this season — be it for the holidays or a cozy weekend with your closest friends — why not pool your untouched T&E budgets or maybe the money you may have saved not dining out to buy a ping pong-ball-size white truffle and share this earthiest of pleasures?
Here are my suggestions (actually, they are my commandments/admonishments) for correct prepping and cooking:
• Until you’re ready to use it, store your truffle in the refrigerator, either nestled in a jar of Arborio rice or tucked amongst a basket of eggs. The rice will absorb the flavor as it does, and the porous shell of the egg gently takes on the flavor, too. This way, you can enjoy the experience after the truffle is gone. Correct storage and truffle-infused meals for months. Win, win.
• Never wash the truffle. Use instead a soft-bristled toothbrush to clean (New Yorkers: The legendary pharmacy Bigelow has one that is just right and perfectly gentle.) Not sure about truffle toothpaste though.
• As much as I try to avoid silly single-purpose gadgets, a truffle slicer is probably worth it. You can adjust the slice dimension, but the thinner the better, and so a little steadying precision will give you confidence. Or one of those cheap mandolins from the Japanese grocery store will do fine. Just remember: No matter how sharp you think your knives are or how samurai your knife skills, trust me, they aren’t.
• As for what to shave it over, think neutral canvas. No herbs, sauces, or really any strong flavors at all. Go simple, go pure. White truffles are most memorable with soft—scrambled eggs—the kind that you make slowly, almost wet, in a double boiler, using tons of butter and cream; thin egg pasta such as tagliarini (make your own or buy fresh; in an absolute pinch, Cipriani’s extra-thin dried egg tagliardi will work); potato gnocchi tossed with butter; or the simplest risotto, with maybe a hint of a neutral cheese at the end.
• Whatever you shave it over, make sure that the food is warm, not hot, as warmth is what activates the bouquet and doesn’t imperil the flavor.
• While you’re using those dollars you may have pooled without dining in restaurants, you might consider that white truffles grow in the pockets of hazelnut groves near the Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards of Alba, so to complete the experience you know what to do. Head to Chambers Street Wines or your preferred wine shop with a good selection of Piedmontese wine. Chambers has a selection of birth-year Barolos, which also make for an extravagantly thoughtful gift if you aren’t procuring the truffle but still partaking.
• I am not sure I need to say this because it is a case that has been litigated and won by food writers for at least two decades, but it is still worth a reminder that truffle oil, truffle paste, and truffle vinegars are at best in bad taste, are mostly a sham, and, in some cases, an actual felony. Go for it if you love your truffle-oil fries (I don’t say no to them like I don’t say no to popcorn at the movies), but just know that what you’re eating is entirely synthetic.
• And lastly, when eating tartufo bianco, enjoy it with friends and take a moment to remember that these are true gastronomic gifts of nature — something that cannot be farmed or made in a factory but a special gift that transports you to another place. And in these times, that is a gift worth sharing.
This year, PRIOR is bringing Piedmont to you, offering access to the world’s freshest white truffles. Get in touch with our team to inquire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.