THEY look like shrivelled, wrinkled old potatoes, the kind you find way past their best, long forgotten and buried at the back of the vegetable rack.
They have to be dug up from the ground using ancient and expensive methods, and even the owner of Edinburgh’s best known Italian deli says she can’t stand them. Yet white truffles are one of the most prized -and pricey - foods in the world and the new season is just about to hit the city’s restaurant scene.
At Valvona and Crolla on Elm Row, director Mary Contini is waiting for a call from her suppliers in Italy. “I’m expecting them to be in in about two weeks’ time,” she says.
The renowned deli imports Alba truffles, the most prized of all white truffles, from the town of the same name in the Piedmont region of Italy. A few years ago, such truffles were costing £3600 a kilo - now the price is around a mere £3000, making a 10 pence sized piece worth a whopping £75 to £80.
So why the high price tag? “They are the most aromatic, most flavoursome, rarest and most exciting truffles,” says Mary. “And you only get the experience for two months of the year, so it’s quite exclusive.”
White truffles are the fruiting body of an underground mushroom. They grow mainly in Italy in the root system of lime, hazel, oak and poplar trees - it takes centuries for the ground to become productive but once it is, truffles grow in the same spot year after year.
Because of their price tag, the locations where they grow are closely guarded secrets. The record for a white truffle was set in December 2007 - £165,000 for a 1.5kg specimen. As Mattia Camorani, head chef at Cucina at Hotel Missoni, explains, they range in size, colour and flavour depending on where they grow.
“We’re talking about microclimates here,” Mattia adds. “One side of a riverbank will produce a slightly different taste to another - it’s like wine.”
Cucina is preparing for its first deliveries of white truffles from a private estate in Piedmonte, where the truffles are sniffed out by a hunter and his specially trained dog, rather than the more traditional pig. “The advantage is a pig isn’t going to eat the truffle!” laughs Mattia. “But there are no high-tech ways of gathering truffles - it is a hunter and his dog early in the morning or in the evening. You can’t grow truffles artificially, you can’t mass produce them, they are a totally natural food.”
And once nature has done her stuff, the truffles are sold off through north Italian markets to top restaurants across Europe. At Cucina, Mattia, below left, is preparing for a six-course white truffle dinner next Friday - which he will create with Michelin star chef Giorgio Locatelli - specially for the event, before truffles appear on the regular menu.
Everything from the canapé to the pudding will feature truffles, the dessert being zagablione made with eggs infused with truffles. In fact, the smell and taste of truffles is so powerful they can’t just be chopped up and fried with a bit of black pudding like other fungi. Instead, most chefs shave off tiny slivers of truffle to sprinkle over a simple dish, such as pasta, to release the pungent fragrance and flavour.
“Although it has a very strong smell, it is very delicate in another way. It is easy to cover the flavour, so you keep it very simple,” says Mattia.
They tend to produce a Marmite-like reaction in diners. “To some people it’s smelly and odorous, to others it’s a beautiful fragrance,” says Mattia.
Mary adds: “It’s a chemical thing that reacts with your body’s chemicals. You either love them or you can’t stand them - and I can’t stand them.”
But many of Mary’s customers would disagree, and she’s expecting truffle fans to come flocking once Valvona’s £15 white truffle pasta goes on the menu, including TV chef Clarissa Dickson Wright, a big truffle fan.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the price tag, home cooks tend to be reluctant to experiment in their own kitchen with them. And it’s partly for that reason that Mattia is holding a masterclass on November 16.
“People are afraid because they don’t want to ruin them when they cost so much. But there are some simple ways of using truffles which end up with a very flavoursome dish,” he says.
• Tickets for the six-course truffle dinner at Cucina are £80, or £120 with a wine-matching package. To book, call Cucina on 0131-220 6666.