The traditional Torciata di San Giuseppe (the Bonfire of St. Joseph) in the inland of Tuscany Maremma on the night of Saint Joseph recalls an ancient pagan ceremony where an auspicious purifying bonfire marks the arrival of the new season.
This ancient Etruscan ritual was later Christianized and connected to the feast of Saint Joseph. Religious traditions and folklore are intertwined, creating a moment of joy and happiness in the streets of the village of Pitigliano, culminating on March 19 with the big bonfire.
The village come to life with historic reenactments, illuminated by torches and candles: three trumpets kick off the march of forty “torciatori”, racing in the dark of night. The yellow stone buildings and the arches of the Medici Aqueduct are illuminated by the flames. Flag wavers perform in Piazza del Comune with the ” invernacciu “, a large stick snowman lit on fire symbolizing the death of winter. St. Joseph is invoked to protect the land. The coals from the fire are collected by the women and kept in the homes as a good omen.
Pitigliano is a stunning medieval town in the Maremma of Tuscany, dramatically perched atop a tufa ridge of Etruscan origin. The town is also known as Piccola Gerusalemme, or Little Jerusalem. This part of Tuscany sees far fewer tourists than central Tuscan hill towns and should not be missed. For several hundred years Pitigliano was a frontier town between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States. For this reason, the town was home to a flourishing and long-lived Jewish community, mostly made up by people fleeing from Rome during the Counter-reformation persecutions. Jews of the town used one of the Etruscan caves for their ritual Passover matzoh bakery. The beautiful Synagogue built in 1598 still officiates from time to time and was restored in 1995. A must see in Tuscany!
We decided to write this blog on truffles after reading an article in the local paper that truffles are only found in Tuscany! There could be nothing more erroneous!
From Piemonte to Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Tuscany, here is your guide to truffles in Italy.
Truffles, a gourmand’s delicacy, is one of the most expensive and precious tubers in the world. Top international chefs bid for them at prestigious auctions, and foodies adore them.
The word “truffle” comes from the Latin word “tuber” which means “lump”. Over the centuries, the word evolved, becoming “tufer” and in Italian “tartufo”.
Truffles are an underground Ascom
ycete fungi. They grow symbiotically with specific tree roots, called “simbionti” in Italian. They have an external part, called the “peridio”, which may have different textures and colors depending on the kind of truffle, and an inner, pulpy part, called the “gleba”.
How do truffles grow?
Like all fungi, truffles come from spores which germinate in the soil in spring, producing very thin filaments around the roots of certain trees. At the end of spring/summer, these colonize the plant’s roots and grow mycorrhiza, special “organs”, which provides a relatively constant access to carbohydrates directly from the plant. In fall/winter, mycorrhizas push the vegetative part of the fungus, called mycelium. They grow and ultimately become the “fruit” of the fungus, that is the truffle.
While truffles are underground they cannot spread spores maintaining a distinct and strong scent, which only certain animals like pigs and dogs are attracted to.
Poplar, beech, oak and hazelnut trees “produce” white truffles which grow in well drained argillaceous or calcareous soils and in a chilly and humid microclimate (6°C/43 F)
Where and when can I find Truffles?
There are 63 Tubers classified as truffles and they can be found all over the world, from Europe to New Zealand and each has its own season.
Italy counts for about 25 different truffles, but only 9 of them are considered edible and 4 the most sought.
Kinds of Italian truffles
White Truffle – Bianco Pregiato (Tuber magnatum)
This precious white truffle, also called “trifola d’Alba Madonna”, can be found mainly from middle-late September to end of January in the Langhe and Monferrato areas of the Piedmont region in northern Italy. Some may also be found in Molise, Abruzzo, and in the hills around San Miniato, in Tuscany. They can also be found on the Istria peninsula, in Croatia and Slovenia and in the Drome area in France.
Precious Black Truffle of Umbria
The Norcia black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) is the second-most commercially valuable species. It grows mainly under oak and hazelnut trees. Black truffles are harvested in late autumn and winter (mid November to mid of March).
The black Summer truffle (Tuber aestivum) is prized for its culinary value and are found in many parts of Italy from the middle of June to the end of August and from beginning of October to the end of November.
The “whitish” truffle (Tuber borchii) is a similar species found in Tuscany, Abruzzo, Romagna, Umbria, the Marche and Molise. It is not as aromatic as those from Piedmont, although those from Città di Castello come quite close. They can be found from mid-January to the end of April.
Truffles cannot be hunted from the end of August to the middle of September.
Black or White Truffle- what’s the difference?
Of course the main difference is the color. But white truffles range from white to ocra on the outside and a white- hazelnut color inside. They also have a smoother texture. Black truffles are rougher with a black or dark brown rind. The inside of a black summer truffle is white to hazelnut while the winter black truffle is black or dark grey.
But biggest difference is the aroma of the truffle. White truffles have a stronger smell and a wider range of aromas: from garlic to honey or hay. While black truffles have a less powerful smell and are less complex, they remind you more of mushroom, soil and underbrush.
Are Dogs or pigs used?
Pigs were used in the past to go truffle hunting, especially female swine more keen to tracking the truffle scent but difficult to control and stop from eating them once found.
Truffle dogs are now used as easier to train and manage. The most common breed used are pointer dogs such as Italian bracco, Italian spinone, Setter, Cocker Spaniel.
Finding the right truffle
Visually examine the truffle. It must be clean and in one piece. Dark spots mean it might be rotten.
If you gently press the truffle, it has to have a good level of consistency. If it is gummy or elastic, it is not fresh.
Smell the truffle: the precious white truffle has a pleasant, agreeable, well balanced aroma. If you smell ammonia, methane or fermented notes, this suggests it is not fresh.
When at a restaurant, always ask to see the truffles before they slice them on the food and check them as described above. If price is per gram, ask to check the weight. An average portion is usually 10 grams and costs about 50 euros.
Best Truffle recipes:
The best recipes are the simplest. You want to let the aroma of the truffle come through. I cringe when I read menus and recipes that use truffles with balsamic vinegar, strong cheeses or similar.
Simpler dishes like buttered fresh egg pasta, fondue, risotto (plain), fried egg, or steak tartare bring all the aroma and taste of the truffle to life! White truffles should be shaved while the Norcia black truffle grated.
Price of a truffle
Truffles are seasonal products, so their availability, quality and price can vary sharply from year to year and it greatly depends on the climate as well as shape and size.
The precious Alba white truffle is the most expensive ranging 3000 to 4000 Euros per kilo (the average 20 gr piece is 300 to 400 Euros.
Ancel Keys, the inventor of the Mediterranean Diet
Bread, pasta, fruit, vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, fish and very little meat. Here are the ingredients of the Mediterranean diet, a UNESCO “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. The reason of the award is the positive impact that the Mediterranean diet has to health. But you know who was the first to demonstrate its effectiveness in a scientific way? An Italian? No, the American Ancel Keys.
Born in 1904 in Colorado Springs, he was a biologist, physiologist and nutritionist at the University of Minnesota. Sent to follow the troops during the Second World War he was responsible for the nutritional and ration program for the US Defense Department.
During the early 1950s he participated in the first “Conference on Nutrition” held in Rome with top international experts. Dr. Keys was fascinated by the low incidence of cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders of the inhabitants of the Campania region and the island of Crete.
He thought it was a correlation that must somehow be explained scientifically. For this reason he was the promoter of the first pilot study to clarify the mystery.
In 1962, he moved to Pioppi, a village in the municipality of Pollica, Cilento –a hidden treasure and considered the other AMALFI COAST became the headquarters of his studies. After decades he concluded that the supply of bread, pasta, fruit, vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, fish and very little meat was responsible for the extraordinary beneficial effect on the local population.
This type of power was called “Mediterranean Diet”, the Mediterranean Diet precisely. All the results of his studies were translated, in popular form, in the famous book “Eat Well and Stay Well” a revolution from the United States, his home country.
Dr. Keys lived in Pioppi for over 20 years. He died in the USA in 2004 at the age of 100 years!