What are White Truffles?
This is a pretty big question and the answer could go several ways. White truffles do have a rather mysterious aura surrounding them. Disappointingly, this post aims simply to clear up some of the confusion and misinformation about white truffles on the market.
There are dozens of species of truffles in nature and, of these species, several are classed as white. The term in itself is misleading as these truffles are never pure white. Instead they may be cream, grey, beige or even ochra in colour. Of these ‘white’ truffles, there are two which are both edible and available on the general market in Europe. The first white truffle is the tuber borchii, it is known as the spring white truffle or bianchetta. Italians also refer to this truffle as Marzuolo because it peaks in the month of March.
It first appears at the end of January and by late April it has disappeared. It can be cultivated, tastes pretty good and is about one sixth of the value of the other more famous white truffle – the rare tuber magnatum.
Also known as the Alba truffle or the autumn white truffle, tuber magnatum can be found from September. It peaks in late November and is off the menu by mid-January. It cannot be cultivated, tastes divine and can cost up to $6000 per kilo. This price depends on supply that season and is also influenced by where you are in the world. Generally the further you move from Europe and the further along the supply chain you get from the hunter, the more expensive the truffle will be.
It would be difficult to confuse autumn and spring white truffles as they do not grow in the same season. They also look quite different especially when cut. The autumn truffle has more delicate veining and the flesh is not as dark as that of the spring truffle. Their aromas and flavours are poles apart. The autumn white truffle is intoxicating, incomparable while the spring truffle is far more subtle.
There may be greater grounds for some confusion in the area of truffle products. Manufacturers are within the law if they call a product white truffle butter without specifying which species of white truffle has been used. A quick glance at the small print will often reveal that it is tuber borchii in the butter, not its more expensive cousin. As tuber borchii is a relatively mild truffle, the flavour of the product will usually be enhanced. The enhancer is invariably synthetic truffle oil thus rendering the whole truffle experience artificial.
A more contentious issue surrounding white truffles is that of the Alba truffle. It was believed, although this misconception is gradually changing, that these white truffles were somehow different to other white autumn truffles. This is not the case, Alba truffles are the regular tuber magnatum species, not some sub-species. They just happened to be found in the Alba region of Italy.
It must be said that the conditions around the area of Alba in Piedmont are superb for the precious white truffle. However the reason for Alba’s proclaimed truffle superiority has little to do with the setting and more to do with enviable marketing skills. Back in the 1950’s while other truffle growing regions were sleeping on a gold mine, visionaries like Giacomo Morra were busy promoting their product. Morra owned a restaurant in Alba and he saw within this dirty tuber the potential to become an elusive luxury product. More than a restaurant owner, he was a marketing genius and his groundwork ensured the town of Alba will always be linked with the white truffle.
Morra’s simple but effective advertising campaign created the associations between the white truffle and sex, power and wealth that exist to this day. He achieved this by awarding the Truffle of the Year to the most important celebrities of the era. These were the world leaders – Churchill, Truman and Kruschev and the glamorous sex symbols, women like Monroe, Hayworth and Loren. Morra created a buzz, gourmet chefs took note and the rest is history.
Other truffle areas were able to cash in on Alba’s success but paid a price, for their tardiness – their white truffles might be just as good as Alba’s but they may never have the same glamorous connotations. The Alba prestige has unfortunately lead to various subterfuges. According to Ryan Jacob‘s book The Truffle Underground, only 25% of truffles with the Alba label are indeed from the region. The point is that noone is any the wiser, Alba or not, they are the same truffles!
So that’s it really – on the European market you will come across two species of white truffle. The autumn truffle is far superior in taste and also a good deal pricier than the spring tuber. The autumn truffle is a tuber magnatum and these are often called Alba truffles. In all probability an Alba truffle is not from that place at all. The place of origin is usually modified to justify a higher price tag. If you can get past the blatant trickery then it doesn’t really matter that much. There has been a lot of hype over the years but in reality there is no difference in taste. Welcome to the curious world of the truffle.