The white truffle has far fewer varieties than the celebrated black Périgord alternative in mainstream culinary use, and consists of the undisputed heavyweight champ, the Piedmont or 'Alba madonna' (literally- the 'White lady'), and two other lesser known and less eaten varieties; the bianchetto or marzuolo truffle, and the Oregon white truffle.
White truffles grow in the shallow root clusters of a wide range of trees, from the oak and hazelnut familiar to black truffle hunters, and also the cedar, larch, beech, poplar and some pines. Once detected- usually by specially trained truffle hunting dogs, or else pigs, which don't have to be trained, just detained, before they eat the precious truffle!- the white truffle must be carefully dug up and handled.
Unlike the robust black truffle, white truffles tend to be far more fragile, bruising and spoiling easily, and lose their color and taste less than two weeks after leaving the ground. When plentiful, their uneven and naturally careworn appearance led the Piedmont to be peeled before use in the kitchen. However, nowadays due to the incredible prices they demand, their unkempt skins are more likely to be lovingly washed and brushed, so as not to waste a single morsel, and many chefs literally shave the skins and set the thin peelings aside for use in truffle sauce, soups and truffle paste.
White truffles tend to be eaten raw, as their delicate constitution can result in the act of cooking decimating the very flavor so desired, and out of season can only be purchased preserved, usually in a solution of brine.
The smaller cousin of white truffles, the bianchetto, has the appearance of a bulbous mushroom, singular or several tightly grouped together, but the glorious Piedmont comes out of the ground looking like a neolithic chunk of battle scarred quartz or white flint, or perhaps a huge uncut diamond awaiting the master jeweller's hammer and chisel to shape, and that is where we shall begin..
The 'White lady'! The 'Magnificent swelling'! (For those of you needing to brush up on the original Italian language, this is the Latin meaning of the Tuber magnatum), or, if you like, just the plain Piedmont white truffle. If the black truffle is king, the white truffle is surely the unassailable queen of the kitchen.
Its flesh is less pronounced than the black truffle, with a more mottled
appearance of beige and pinks, as opposed to a clearly defined vein
structure, and has a stronger, garlic like aroma and taste. Sought after
for centuries as a prized delicacy, it has not spread far from its source, and can only be found in scattered locations in pockets of countryside from Italy to Istria.
Originating from the hilly Piedmont region of Northern Italy below Turin, the demonstrative and wonderfully expressive Italian language tells us in many different ways what the Italians think of the 'white diamond of the kitchen'. (Aren't we all secretly glad that Italy is always out there somewhere, loving life and vitality, and endlessly creating vibrant culture alongside its many frustrations, as it has been doing for so many centuries?)
Italian Piedmont lies in the foothills of the Alps, in the border region with South Eastern France, and the proximity to Monaco and the cliques of the super rich in the nearby French and Italian Rivieras, provides a serendipitous analogy with this, the most expensive and exclusive food product in the world. The climate higher up and away from the Chanel speckled shores is not quite alpine, or even sub-alpine, but the low mountainous valleys here, enjoy a warm green vibrant Spring, short hot humid Summers, (in fact some reliable rainfall during the months of July and August are essential for healthy truffle growth) and cold majestic snowy Winters. This is perfect white truffle country, and truffles here can grow naturally to extraordinary sizes, with prices to match.
The main harvesting time for the elusive Piedmont truffle is September to November, and all efforts to cultivate and grow them commercially have so far failed. This is probably quite fortunate, as this affirms the exclusivity of this prize culinary jewel. The natural vagaries and variations in the growth of fungi, coupled with the very human excitement of the truffle hunt and of discovering the unknown, also adds to the mystique of the product, which would be lost somewhat in mass cultivation, and so all in all cannot be a bad thing.
The Alba madonna can be found across Northern Italy, east towards ancient Istria (Slovenia, Croatia, and into Hungary), and truffling season is celebrated in many rural towns with truffle fairs ('Fiera del Tartufo' in Italy) during the months of October and November. The most famous is held at the Castello Grinzane near the town of Alba (from the Latin similar to the truffle of the same name, meaning 'light' or 'dawn') where afficionados come to browse and buy, and Piedmont truffles can reach $7,000 USD per pound - €12,000 per kilogram.
There are two other significant white truffles which help to broaden out the topic, one growing in the North American continent, but before we leave Europe, there is..
'Bianchetto' means 'the smaller white', reinforced with its Latin name, the Tuber albidum, which means exactly the same thing, and is a reference to its larger (and more famous) cousin, the Piedmont truffle. Its other name is the Tuber borchii, or 'little boss', so we shall quickly move on for fear of offending the truffle Mafiosi. (Joke!)
The bianchetto is a smaller, tougher, meaner truffle than the fragile Piedmont.. perhaps the 'Mafi..' connection again.? which stays fresher longer once out of the ground, and has a darker, richer almost brain like interior. It can grow in cooler or warmer climes, drier or damper, across a much wider swathe of Europe than its big cousin, and has been found as far north as Edinburgh in Scotland and as far south as Sicily. Unlike the Piedmont it can be cultivated, and has even been transported overseas, where maturing trees and truffle farms in certain places around the world can now grow the borchii successfully.
The great selling point of this particular white truffle, is the early Spring harvesting season- January to April, so enabling white truffles to be enjoyed in some form virtually all year round. This advantage is considerably added to by the fact that New Zealand has recently begun commercially producing the bianchetto truffle. Alongside its Périgord black truffle industry, and due to the opposing nature of the Southern Hemisphere seasons, compared to the North American and European growing seasons, an almost unbroken supply of truffles to the world's gastronomes is now guaranteed year round.
There is however a downside to this, as the bianchetto has a noticeably different aroma and taste to the Piedmont, being described as having more than a hint of garlic to it, and as they mature turn from off-white to reddish brown and even coffee colored. Although the color is purely aesthetic, it can create confusion when bought and sold, as they can be mixed with other lesser brown and black varieties, which dilutes the value and interferes with the superior taste of the white truffles. This confusion can be accidental, or sometimes contrived by unscrupulous producers or market sellers, to boost their profits, while passing off lesser brown and black edible truffles as 'matured borchiis'.
A final further consideration when discussing Southern Hemisphere truffles, black or white, and for that matter North American truffles as opposed to European varieties, is the huge effect that minute changes in soil composition or bacterial content can have on the actual taste and smell of a truffle. For average day to day use, perhaps this effect can be overstated, but for cordon bleu chefs and gastronomes, it is not enough that it simply looks like a white truffle, it must taste and smell like one too, which, for the moment, give the European white truffles the edge.
This is by no means being disingenuous to Australian, New Zealand and American truffles- as the European wine industries have found out to their cost- ignore the New World at your peril. The quality of Antipodean and American agriculture, at its best, is the best, as we find out when discussing the final major white truffle, the 'Oregon white', in the next section of truffle variations; the North American varieties.