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  • Tuscan Son

Truffles #2

My first memory of white truffles is of my old friend and neighbor Aurelio, who, after being out truffle hunting with his two great dogs, Baffo and Nerino, would be back home in his humble kitchen, slicing the few golden nuggets he found with a pocket knife. He would toss the truffle chunks in a small bowl, some salt, pepper and olive oil later he would be chomping on it with a piece of bread as a pre-dinner snack… just like that, as if it was a leftover boiled potato from the day before. Pretty far out, comparing to the nowadays culinary swag, where a slicer-wielding Chef would show up to customer tables topping dishes with shavings of the precious truffle, almost at the double-digit $ rate per slice, resulting in an ostentatious but “out of this world” dish.

Fancy eateries all over town are trying to get their hands on specimens of this extremely highly valued culinary commodity. Right now “truffle brokers” run from restaurant to restaurant with their small ice cooler, unsheathing their jewelry grade scale to measure the few ounces of the 24K golden tuber to be negotiated upon with the chef. My wife always compares the truffle transaction to a drug deal and she’s right: the stash, the scale, the money/weight ratio…sometimes it’s even done in a parking lot out of the trunk of a car!

Many things affects the seasonal price of truffles and they relate to environment, weather and supply. For example, at the beginning of October 2015 the Italian market price for 100 gr (about 3.5oz) was 300 euros, by the end of the month it already skyrocketed to 400 euros. In 2007 it was going for a hefty 750 euros per 100 gr!! The size of the tuber also affects the price considerably, when a truffle hunter hits the jackpot by unearthing a giant size truffle he doesn’t measure by market price anymore, he just lets the highest bidder dictate the price.

Truffles start to lose value the moment are pulled out off the ground. Unlike wine, time is truffle’s worst enemy. Time will shrink it in size and weight, it will also lessen the intensity of its unique scent, and all this factors will consequently affect the price. Shipping truffles overseas adds another level of danger to its value. When a friend of mine shipped truffle to the US the authorities at the airport (USDA in his case) decided that the shipment was contaminated by soil (duh, that’s where they grow) so they threw the whole thing ($$$) in the garbage! That’s why before being shipped they have to be extremely and cautiously well-scrubbed…. by hand! They are very delicate and costly if they break!

Truffles is one of the many things I miss from my native soil and it goes beyond the tuber itself. Most of all I miss the renowned “Sagra del Tartufo”, the truffle festival. Starting the end of September, each of the local towns promotes a truffle fair. The festival season culminates with the biggest event, at national level, in San MIniato where precious truffles and all its by-products are marketed and showcased. Those festivals are very popular and they attract thousands of Italian and foreign visitors.

I always enjoyed walking from stall to stall, seeing friends, tasting delicious local products, drinking regional wines and reveling in the underlying aroma of the truffle infused air.

Truffles grows exclusively in the Italian woods and are predominantly found in Piedmont and Tuscany, but also in some parts of Umbria, Marche and Molise. The city of Alba, in the Piedmont region, thanks to an early-on marketing campaign, was able to distinguish itself as the white truffle capital of the world, causing a feudal-like revolt in the “other” capital: San Miniato. But Tuscans like to point out that the Piedmontese at times come south to Tuscany in incognito to buy the local tuber and then sell it back home as its own, ha!

My mom’s family comes from the small Tuscan borough of Balconevisi, municipality of S. Miniato, right in the heart of Tuscany. Marco and Michael, the two brothers from the Abruzzo region of Italy who 15 years ago started to get their truffle monopoly on L.A., are in full swing.

My mom’s family comes from the small Tuscan borough of Balconevisi, municipality of S. Miniato, right in the mostly tourist-free heart of Tuscany. The village’s surrounding woods are a handful of few blessed pieces of land in Italy where truffles wildly grow mostly between fall and winter.

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