The genus Tuber of the family Tuberaceae counts numerous species of fungi commonly called truffles, subterranean fruiting bodies that grow spontaneously in the earth near the roots of several species of trees and shrubs; notably oaks, holm oaks, poplars and willows, with which they establishes symbiotic relationships. When ripe, truffles emit an unmistakeable, penetrating and persistent aroma.
Some species of truffle are very highly prized, sought-after and costly. Since their growth depends on seasonal as well as environmental factors, in years with little rainfall and very high temperatures, truffles are particularly scarce and the price of this ‘food of the gods’ may be exceptionally high.
In terms of both quality and quantity, Italy is the world’s foremost producer and exporter of the precious white Tuber magnatum. What’s more, all the varieties of truffle used in the kitchen grow on the Italian peninsula.
The most important White Truffle production areas in Italy, all of which share similar geographic conformation, are located in the Piedmont region (primarily the Alba area), in south-eastern Lombardy (Carbonara di Po), and in the regions of Emilia-Romagna (along the entire Apennine range, beginning with Piacenza), Tuscany (especially San Miniato, in the province of Pisa), Umbria, Marche (Acqualagna), Abruzzo and Molise.
The Black Truffle is much more common. The primary production areas are in Umbria and Molise; here we find both the summer variety, known as the scorzone, and the more highly-prized winter variety, Tuber melanosporum.
The thrill of the truffle hunt
At harvest time, the San Minato truffle is first located by expert truffle hunters and their Lagotto and Meticcio Sanminiatese dogs and then gathered strictly by hand. The search can be lengthy; the time needed to find a truffle will depend on many variables such as the compactness of the soil and the depth at which the fungus forms.
The intense, penetrating scent of the truffle attracts the dog, which identifies the truffle’s precise location and begins digging until the hidden treasure is revealed. Now the human hunter steps in, using his vanghino (a special small spade, indispensible, together with a regional permit, for hunting truffles) and then his fingers to extract his prize from the earth. For its efforts, the dog is rewarded with a treat and affectionate caresses.