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If you’re a dedicated food lover then you must try truffles in Italy. Found in many regions across the country, Italian truffles are prized for their intense aroma and flavor that can elevate a humble dish of pasta to gastronomic heights.
In this guide we’ll tell you all about this delicious natural ingredient, the different varieties of truffle and let you know where you can find and taste them on your trip to Italy.
What are Italian truffles?
Truffles are known in Italy as ‘tartufo’. The origin of this is the Latin word ‘tuber’, which describes a lump. They are far more like subterranean mushrooms than potatoes, however, growing beneath the surface close to tree roots. Usually, they are found at a depth of around 5 to 30 centimeters underground.
Truffles grow best in a humid, colder climate. They are found in forests throughout northern Piedmont and central parts of Tuscany as well as Umbria and Le Marche growing beneath various tree species, such as willow, poplar, hazelnut and oak.
Gourmet produce of the highest order, Italian truffles can be extremely expensive, with average prices of over €2,000 per kilo and some fetching as much as €5,000 per kilo.
There are nine edible types of truffle, but the main varieties are grown in winter and are usually named for their color – white or black. It can be a challenge working out what you are eating and determining its value so here are some pointers.
Tuber Magnatum Pico or white truffles are also known as Trifola d’Alba Madonna (“Truffle of the White Madonna” in Italian), the King of Truffles or White Diamonds. Loved by Italians and visitors alike, they have an incomparable aroma and flavor. White truffles have an irregular shape, are smooth, and range from white to ochre in color. Their aroma is earthy, and the flavor may include notes of garlic, nuts or honey.
The Langhe province near the city of Alba in Piedmont is the most famous region for Italian white truffles however you can also find them in Le Marche, Tuscany, and Umbria. Here they grow thanks to the unique microclimate and soil conditions in areas where you find oak trees, willows and poplars.
A more common white truffle is the Tartufo Bianchetto or Marzuolo. This truffle is harvested between February and April and has smooth skin and a garlicky taste and aroma.
Nero Pregiato or sweet black truffles are another prestigious variety but they are more common and remain fresh for longer than white truffles. They are easier to store and transport so you’re more likely to see them outside Italy. Available from mid November to mid March, they are milder in flavor than the white, with some describing the aroma as having notes of chocolate, earth or dried fruit.
Black truffles have a dark brown to black exterior with a reddish tinge. Inside the flesh is dark with white veins. As they have a stronger taste, they benefit from gentle heat in the cooking process. The best of these black truffles are said to come from Norcia in Umbria.
Other truffle varieties found in Italy
There are several other species of black truffle found in Italy. The most common is the black summer truffle – the Scorzone – which can be found from May to October but are generally best in July. This truffle has a bumpy bark like exterior with a light brown flesh and smell like mushrooms.
Winter black truffles are also common and sometimes passed off as the nero pregiato variety. Found from January to March, the skin is much less bumpy than the flesh is grey or brown with whiteish veins.
One type of truffle you might like to avoid is the Tartufo di Bagnoli. With a bitter and pungent taste you can recognize this truffle by its smooth brown exterior and yellowish brown flesh.
Where can you find truffles in Italy?
Italy is one of the world’s main truffle producers, and a number of truffle fairs are held throughout the country each year. The finest white truffles are said to come from the area near Alba in Piedmont however different varieties can be found across the northern and central regions of Italy where the microclimates and soil composition provide the best conditions for them to grow
- Piedmont – white truffles, Nero Pregiato and Scorzone as well as the more common Brumale variety
- Le Marche – white truffles and Nero Pregiato varieties found in the areas near Acqualagna and Pergola
- Tuscany – white truffle, Nero Pregiato and Scorzone found in various provinces across the region
- Umbria – different varieties found near centers of Orvieto, Perugia, and Norcia
- Emilia-Romagna – several varieties found in the areas near Parma and Piacenza
- Abruzzo and Molise – produce up to 60% of Italian truffles and you’ll find most of the varieties here
Truffles are still harvested using traditional methods. Growing underground beneath trees and in rocky areas, truffles cannot be farmed or cultivated. Although they are fungi related to mushrooms, they never break the surface. So you need a discerning nose to find them.
Truffles are found and foraged by specially trained animals – usually dogs or pigs – who literally sniff them out. Truffle hunters take the animals to search areas where truffles are known to grow. Called tartufaia, these areas are a closely guarded secrets where only locals know where to find the natural delicacy. The animals are let loose to find the aroma emitted by the truffle spores.
Once a truffle is found, the need to make sure that the animals don’t damage them and keep them intact to ensure the best price at the markets. Harvesting is therefore highly skilled and time-consuming process.
Joining a truffle hunt is an exciting and unique experience you may want to try when you’re in Italy. When you join a hunt you’ll learn all about why this ingredient is so precious. Usually there is an opportunity to also taste what you have found.
- Tuscany – truffle hunt and tasting from Siena with a truffle hunter with over 18 years experience plus tastings! > click for details
- Piedmont – search the hills near Alba for the White Diamond truffles the area is famous for > more information
Truffle season in Italy
Knowing when the truffle season happens in Italy is all important, as the best way to eat truffles is as soon as they are removed from the ground. This makes foraging for and eating truffles a truly unique experience to include on your Italian itinerary.
Italy has several different seasons for truffles depending on the variety. Winter white truffles are found between October and early January, while the summer white truffle season begins in mid January and lasts until late April.
Black truffles also have a winter and summer season. Winter black truffle season runs from November to March, and the summer season is between May and September.
Thus for around seven months of the year, Italy produces, consumes and exports a large quantity of truffles. The best time to visit and try the truffles fresh from the ground is in November when the truffle fairs take place and you can find the winter white and black truffles in abundance.
Once they are out of the ground, truffles need to be prepared and eaten quickly. That’s why the best approach is to eat them when you are in Italy. Despite every best effort, truffles (especially the prized white variety) do not travel well. So the best approach is to visit the regions and towns in truffle season where you’ll find them in out of the ground fresh abundance.
Italian truffle festivals
If you can time your visit around a truffle festival, it will be a highlight of your trip to Italy. A number of fairs or sagre (food festivals) and buyers markets are held throughout the year but most take place in fall or autumn. Truffle festivals showcase this prized foodstuff, and they are usually devoted to a particular type of truffle.
The International White Truffle Fair of Alba lasts for almost a month, and is held from early October to early November. At the heart of this fair is the World Truffle Market, the perfect place to sample and purchase truffles. There are also chef demonstrations, wine pairings and even a dedicated children’s truffle pavilion. This is the best known fair with international buyers visiting from all over the world keen try the famous Magnatum Pico.
Acqualagna in Le Marche has not one but three truffle festivals. In winter there is a regional black truffle fair, held in late February. Later in the year is the regional black summer truffle fair in late July. The most popular is the National White Truffle Fair, which runs for two weeks during late October and early November.
In Tuscany, you can attend the San Miniato National White Truffle Market. The medieval hill town hosts this fair during November weekends, where visitors can taste fresh white truffles. A great introduction to all things truffle, this festival features crafts and entertainment as well as food stalls. Local restaurants also get in on the act, offering truffle menus with reasonably priced specialities.
Italian dishes made with truffles
Truffle recipes date back to Roman times, when they were prized by wealthy noble families and served at their banquets. These days each region where truffles grow have their own unique recipes and traditions using the prized ingredient.
But, however you eat your truffles they must always be eaten fresh. White truffles only remain fresh for around three days, while black truffles may last up to a fortnight if carefully stored.
It’s also worth noting that white and black truffles are treated very differently in culinary terms. The delicate flavor of a white truffle is destroyed by cooking. Instead, you’ll find it liberally shaved over scrambled eggs for a truly decadent breakfast. Most traditionally you’ll find white truffle shaved over long egg noodle pasta like the ‘tajarin alla tartufo’ from Piedmont. The only other ingredients are stock and seasoning allowing the truffle flavor to shine.
Carpaccio with White Truffle is a traditional Tuscan recipe of uncooked, marinated beef steak served with salad, pine nuts, Parmigiano and white truffle flakes. You’ll also find white truffle shaved over gnudi – Tuscan gnocchi made with ricotta.
Heat actually accentuates the flavor of black truffles, so they are often used to add their unique taste to more robust dishes. One of the simplest ways of using truffles is to place thin slivers beneath poultry skin or in slits of steak, to infuse the meat with flavor as it cooks.
For those who love rice, black truffle risotto is another option. ‘Risotto al Tartufo Nero’ is also made to a simple recipe, and includes onion, butter and white wine for a rich flavor. You’ll also find black truffle shaved over pizza.
Truffle specialty restaurants
If you are visiting one of the major Italian cities and want to try truffles, then head to these recommended addresses where serving truffle is a passion.
- Tartufi and Friends – truffles are the focus at this venue close to Piazza di Spagna. They also have a branch in Milan
- Savini Tarufi – try truffles any way you like at this lovely restaurant run by the Savini family who have generations of experience growing and preparing truffles
- Il Tartufo – located in Mercato Centrale, this is a more casual bar also owned by the Savini family
Where will you try Italian truffles?
Whether you’re visiting an area famed for truffle production or not, sampling this delicacy is a must when you visit Italy. Learning all about this fascinating foodstuff can be just as much of a discovery as tasting it, too. Whatever you do, never turn down the chance to taste an exclusive, decadent white truffle – it is something that may happen only once in a lifetime.
To learn more, listen to our podcast episode about truffle hunting (and eating) in Le Marche