White Truffle Butter
November is my favourite month. My birthday is in November for starters, so that’s always a good excuse. It also happens to be white truffle season, and San Miniato, the small and steep hilltop town where my husband comes from, is the place to get prized white truffles, tartufo bianco, in Tuscany.
2010 was a great year for truffles, even if we had to put up with non-stop rain in Spring and a short summer. Because of the abundance of truffles this season, the price was down by 50% from last year to just 1,200 euro a kilo. Bargain.
Truffles, which grow wild in oak and chestnut forests, rely on the most perfect conditions and wild animals roaming the forest floors to spread their spores and are not easy for humans to cultivate – one of Mother Nature’s little tricks. You can find black truffles (the more common type, less tasty and with an odour that many liken to gas or petrol) and white truffles (prized, beautiful and intoxicatingly sexy). As luxurious an item as truffles are these days, they were actually a less exclusive ingredient in the Middle Ages, quite accessible especially to those who lived in the truffle-producing areas.
While white truffles are relatively rare, Italy is blessed with quite a few areas of white truffle production: Pesaro-Urbino in Le Marche, Alba in Piedmonte and San Miniato in Tuscany are two of the main ones – San Miniato’s claim to fame is that the largest white truffle in the world was found here in 1954 and then shipped off the US as a gift for President Eisenhower. Alba in the northern region of Piedmonte has been famous since the 18th century for its white truffles, and each of these towns rightfully has their own extensive festival dedicated to these pungent little nuggets, usually around November.
We visit the San Miniato White Truffle Festival every year and usually make a few trips as it lasts for three weekends. The streets and squares fill with food and wine stalls and the smell of truffle literally emanates from the pores of the town for the entire month. We made several good purchases for a truffle dinner on our first visit – a couple of good sized truffles, some fresh truffled sausages from the Falaschi butcher shop and even some truffled gorgonzola.
Once you have a white truffle in your hands, you’ll want clean it as it’ll most likely be covered in a thick layer of dirt and use it as soon as you can, when the aroma is strongest. If you don’t have any fancy truffle equipment, a small (new) toothbrush will do the trick. Don’t worry about being overly zealous as it’s quite delicate and you don’t want to lose precious chunks of truffle – the dirt just contributes to the wonderfully earthy taste anyway.
Truffles are best served as simply as possible so you get the most out it – a little grating of truffle over the humblest of dishes makes anything seem indulgent. They go well with fresh egg pasta, polenta or dishes with butter, eggs, potatoes or cheese. The simpler, the better. Don’t heat it or cook it, just a little grating over the top or a bit of infusing in some melted butter is all you need. Poached or scrambled eggs with truffle is just heaven on a plate.
We ended up going the fresh-tagliolini-pasta-with-truffle route a few times this month – some fresh truffle-infused butter and a bit of pecorino is tossed through the freshly cooked pasta. Grate a bit more truffle over the top.
Truffle-infused butter is great to have on hand, not only for adding to pasta, meat, eggs or whatever else but it’s a nice way to conserve for just a little bit longer any left over truffle (if you have some, that is). Gently melt some butter, grate the fresh truffle over it (again, don’t over heat it or cook it, you just want to warm it in the melted butter to release its aroma) and add good quality salt, to taste. If you’re not using it straight away, pour into jars to let the butter cool – this makes a very impressive Christmas gift too!