If truffles were fish, I'd say they were fishy business.
Obviously, that analogy doesn't exactly work, but it's how I started thinking about the glorious fungi that is the truffle, or if you're going native 'tartufo'.
Truffles in the Maremma are a winter affair. In fact, they are one of the best things about the Maremman winter.
To find them, you have to traipse through the butternut squash-coloured pool of leaves on the forest floor in Monte Amiata
. There's a certain art to avoiding getting the squelchy mess in your gumboots.
Not that I've had any success... with truffles, that is. I'm pretty good at keeping the muck out of my shoes.
The best truffle growing spots are protected with spy-novel secrecy.
The black truffles that grow wild in Monte Amiata are called the Tuber Mesentericum Vitt. tartufo nero or tartufo nero ordinario. They look like shriveled clumps of dirt and can only be found between September and January, which makes right now peak truffles season.
I think the magic of the truffle begins when you cut it open. Instead the coral flesh is mottled with black veins that look like the branches of a spindly willow.
Monte Amiata's truffles actually grow under oak trees, beeches, birch trees and hazels, but you need a pig, dog, fox or other trained animal to find it. Although I do know a 'truffle hunter', as they call themselves, who can smell the earthy aroma of the truffles in the dead of winter.
... all I can smell is rotting leaves.
A truffling pig. Photo: Evelyn Simak
But if you're lucky to get your hands on a truffle, it's worth its weight in gold, which in plain English, is anywhere between €300 and €1,000, depending on the size.
In the Maremma, the truffle is worshiped with equal measure of reverence and devotion.
If you've tasted one before, you find every opportunity to mention the occasion in conversations with friends, family, strangers on the street.
If you've never tried one, you regard the fungi with awe. Somewhere along the way, you've read that it is the height of culinary refinement. The fungi version of caviar or Don Perignon champagne. To taste it is to have made it, which brings me back to the fishy analogy at the start of this post.
I wasn't just throwing words together, whatever you may believe. I actually regard truffles with an arms' length worth of suspicion - an arms' length worth because that's as close as I can ever get to them.
For all their grandeur, truffles actually smell to high heaven. I think it's somewhere between a really strong cheese and rotting onions.
The flavour is glorious, but it's an acquired taste. If you hate mushrooms, don't even bother. The flavour of truffle is a lot like its colour - pungent, earthy and gamy, and for some strange reason, almost salty.
When there is truffle around, you can't taste anything else, which is why I thought I would share this recipe with you.
It's not my recipe, but a recipe that the locals cook up at the annual Festa del Tartufo d'Estate
, held in Castell'Azzara
in the summertime.
When you have such a strong flavour like the truffle, you don't want to mess around with anything else. This simple pasta dish brings out the best of what is a surprisingly hard fungi to cook with.
(Oh, and don't worry, I'm not expecting you go out and buy a truffle. Most supermarkets now sell bottled truffle shavings or truffle oil that work just as well without breaking the budget).
Black Truffle Spaghetti
- 250 gr of fresh, store-bought spaghetti
- truffle oil
- a handful of shaved Parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper, to taste
- black truffle shavings or bottled black truffle
Cook pasta according to the instructions on the packet. Remember to salt the water before you add the pasta. Drain and return to pan to keep warm.
Toss the pasta with a drizzle of truffle oil and the Parmesan cheese, season with salt and pepper.
To serve, place the pasta in bowls. Drizzle with some more truffle oil and another sprinkle of cheese.
Garnish with fresh truffle shavings or slices of bottled truffle.
Enjoy! (Serves 2)