To the untrained eye, truffles may resemble nothing so closely as potatoes and lumps of volcanic rock. But this doesn’t deter some of the world’s most refined palates from shaving them into risottos and whipping them up with scrambled eggs. The white Piedmont truffle, with its mild, earthy flavour and wonderful aroma, is the pinnacle of the fungal form. We tracked down Chris Norton, lord of La Villa – a regal palazzo and particular Smith favourite – to tell us all about Piedmont’s tastiest tuber.
Give us a quick truffle taster. What are the different kinds?
There are three or four different types of truffle, with the best known being the black truffle (notably from Périgord in France), the Chinese truffle and the white truffle. The white truffle is the most exclusive, because of its rarity and flavour.
A single white Piedmont truffle recently fetched $150,000 at auction. What makes these fungi so highly prized?
The unique taste, which is due to a host of climactic and ecological factors. Piedmont truffles are most expensive in September, when they can cost up to €5,000–€6,000 per kilo. Fortunately, a 10 gram serving transforms any dish, so truffles can be enjoyed for about €30–€40.
Is there a particular time when white truffles are best for harvesting?
The truffle season tends to peak from around mid-October to mid-November, although each season is different. The official truffle season runs from 15 September to the end of the year. In reality, you can find truffles from August onwards (our YouTube clip shows a truffle hunt filmed in August).
Can you describe a typical truffle hunt?
We are very fortunate to have our own private land on which to hunt, and each hunt lasts for around two hours. Mario, our truffle hunter (trifulao) goes out with his dog, Rocky three times a day. Rocky was trained to search for gorgonzola in an old sock, progressing on to small pieces of truffle buried underground. He can now find a peanut-sized truffle up to 18 inches below ground – Mario was once offered €25,000 for him!
What a pooch! Where might truffle lovers like Rocky sate their craving?
The Alba Truffle Fair is the most famous truffle event of the year and the auction of the prize-winning truffles at the end of the six-week event is televised across the globe. There is at least one truffle fair every weekend throughout the region.
When the people of Piedmont aren’t madly truffling, what other delicacies does the region have to offer?
Piedmont is one of the ‘food capitals’ of Italy, with the highest concentration of gourmet chefs and some of the best food and wine. Piedmont’s specialities include Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera wines, along with Gavi for those who prefer white, great cheeses, artisan chocolates, amaretti biscuits, and beef.
What’s your favourite truffle recipe?
A truffle brunch is to die for. Gorgonzola and white truffle on toast, scrambled egg with truffle, and fresh pasta with Fonduta cheese and white truffle – spectacular!
Can you recommend a local restaurant where you can taste this delicacy?
Luckily, we are surrounded by great restaurants. The Michelin-starred San Marco at Canelli (+39 0141 823544) is owned by Piercarlo, a leading local truffle hunter. Del Belbo de Bardon (+39 (0)141 831340) in Asti is where the wine-makers take their buyers to enjoy the best regional food, and La Sosta (+39 0141 762538) in Montabone has the cooking of Yolanda, the mâitre d’ skills of husband Luca, and plenty of great value food and wine.
By Louisa Coward