In Black, in Summer: the “Poor Man’s”

Among those food products that always slot into the upper echelons of high gastronomy, the truffle has always enjoyed its own special prestige, its own myths and legends. Many of these come from its flagship species, the “white” truffle, out of which the Piedmontese city of Alba has fashioned an entire industry. This truffle has conquered far beyond its natural habitat: it has become an object of desire, a status symbol, a must-have for those lucky people who can afford to splash out on luxury.  The largest, healthiest examples of the white truffle push prices beyond the bounds of all reason.
 
But in the shadow of the white truffle, however, there lives a whole truffle family, which on closer inspection turn out not to be tubers at all, but hypogeal fungi – that is, fungi growing underground. Of this family, the so-called black truffle is especially popular, partly thanks to being more affordable than its white cousin and partly thanks to its versatility. Cooking does not rob it of its distinguishing traits, unlike its nobler white relative, whose flavour is annihilated by heat.
 
But we need to make a distinction between the “black truffle” – Tuber Melanosporum – which is gathered from November to March and which enjoys a well-established place in winter cooking – and the “summer truffle” or “Burgundy truffle” (Tuber aestivum). This latter is the most reasonably priced of subterranean fungi, and its season, as the name suggests, is right at the height of summer.
 
Tuber Aestivum Vittadini, to give it its full name, has a lumpy, warty surface, and a few identifying features on the inside too. Its “veins” are thicker than those on the costlier black truffle, while its aroma leans more towards that of porcini mushrooms and hazelnut.
 
As to its use, you’ll hear everything and its opposite. There are those who insist that you must eat it fresh, grated and sprinkled over dishes that cannot exceed 40°C, otherwise you will ruin it completely. There are those who maintain that if you don’t cook it it tastes of cardboard; others employ it in ways that justifies the price tag, while still others follow the precepts of French and Italian cooking, which make liberal use of it. What is for sure is that at any table, some guests will look on it with a greedy eye and some with a wary one. With good reason.
 
One curiosity of the summer truffle is that, of all the places where it grows, it favours Italy’s famous “region that doesn’t exist”, namely Molise. Many pungent but good-natured jokes are made about this region, but say what you will: Molise accounts for more than a third of Italy’s Summer truffle production.
 
The Summer truffle certainly gives off a pleasant, delicate aroma, not overpowering, which is why it works so well when grated over dishes. We might sprinkle it on a classic tagliatelle, for example, or in a risotto; maybe over some fried eggs, even. But if we really want to explore its flexibility, we could add it to a sauté, provided that we wait until the dish itself has cooled down. We want to warm the truffle without frying it.
 
Before use, we have to clean the truffle but not wash it: it doesn’t fare well in the wet. For that very reason, it must be conserved in oven paper in a sealed container, and left in the fridge for no more than a few days. Change the paper frequently, and make sure you give the truffles a good brush-down.
 
Some have tried freezing it, with – they say – good results. But these people also tend to have the shrewdness to grate it while still frozen: otherwise it shrivels and goes all rubbery. Vivere di Gusto’s suggestion for the Summer Truffle is to use it to finish off a pasta or a risotto, pairing it with delicate ingredients. A fairly gentle cacio e pepe, for example, or in the classic white sauces.  As for the glass, well, that should be filled with a central Italian red, reasonably young.