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Piedmont /
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Flavors of Italy

White Truffles of Alba: Piedmont’s Rare, Uncultivable Funghi

And the Differences Between White Truffles, Black Winter Truffles and Summer Truffles

“There’s something about white truffles that immediately creates an atmosphere of friendship and of being a part of something special.”

I remember the first time I walked into a local trattoria in Alba during the peak of white truffle season, hit by the distinctive aroma of umami meets earth. On steroids. That was the Tartufo Bianco d’Alba. 

Considered the most famous white truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico) in the world, the Tartufo Bianco d’Alba can only be found in the northern Italian region of Piedmont within the UNESCO protected territories of the Langhe, Roero and Asti-Monferrato. The truffle’s namesake Alba is a 30,000 person town within the Langhe zone, famous also for Nutella and Barolo wine. The pure result of its natural environment, this white truffle cannot be cultivated and grows only underground at the roots of hardwood trees–most often oaks (but also willows, poplars and lindends), which reserve rainwater to produce the constant humidity necessary for the fungi. (Trifolao, “truffle hunters” in Piedmontese dialect, have a deep knowledge of their territories and the truffles’ growing spots, and at the end of 2021, the Italian tradition of truffle hunting made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.)

A white truffle is born through spores, tiny seeds of old truffles, which only flourish in places where a previous truffle grew or where an animal who feeds on truffles spreads them. The spores marry with the roots of the tree, coming together to produce the mycorrhizae. This union creates tiny filaments called hyphae, which weave themselves together to form the mycelium (the mass of tubular filaments of fungi). This unique life cycle, which takes place just a few inches underground, is the process through which the iconic aroma develops; the fragrant scent is kept intact within its cozy home in the soil–in the Alba region, made up of primarily clay and marl, a healthy composition that allows truffles to grow larger. Because of its delicate nature and extreme dependence on the natural environment, the Tartufo Bianco d’Alba doesn’t usually grow in polluted or highly cultivated territory, making them extremely rare and precious.

La Tartufi Morra, an Albese treasure located within the historic center, has been spreading the truffle gospel for over 90 years, and thanks to them the white truffle is loved among a broader culture. The shop–where you can buy in season, fresh or preserved truffles or truffle creams, salts, butter, honey, chocolate, etc.–was founded in 1930 by Giacomo Morra, the pioneer behind the idea of creating a fair dedicated to the buying and selling of truffles, now known throughout the world today as the International Alba White Truffle Fair. A marketing genius, Morra gifted white truffles to famous individuals such as Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchhill as part of a publicity plan, and today the fruits of this campaign and the prestige of the white truffle are widespread.  

I asked Alessandro Bonino, the Managing Director of La Tartufi Morra today to describe the white truffle in three words, and he responded with “rare, expensive, conviviality”. Conviviality. There’s something about white truffles that immediately creates an atmosphere of friendship and of being a part of something special. That moment when you get the first shavings on a warm plate of tajarin and the waiter keeps going and going. Your heart warms like an Italian nonna when her grandchild says “ancora” (“more”) as she serves them her homemade pasta al ragu.

White truffles are one of those foods that warrants friends and family getting dressed up to greet each other at their best, eat their best and exchange meaningful conversation around the table. The first hint that the season has arrived is when dinner guests start bringing mysterious Tupperware containers to dinners and gatherings; the prized goods inside are initially shown only to the host. But that moment when the container is opened for all to see, the truffle, usually wrapped in a paper towel, emits a glorious odor that envelops the entire house and group. All who are in attendance applaud and praise the bounty, and the conversation quickly evolves into a passionate discussion on the market cost per 50 grams (Italians love talking about food prices)–in recent years, about 300 euros. The price has been steadily rising for these fragile white truffles as truffle hunters have found only a fifth of what they used to in the last 15 years–a direct result of climate change and inconsistent temperatures and rainfall.

But what really makes the white truffle a step above the more common black variety? What’s the difference between white truffles, black winter truffles and black summer truffles?

WHITE TRUFFLES

Let’s start with the season. White truffles from Piedmont, the rarest variety of truffle, are normally harvested beginning in late September through the end of January, but most locals will tell you that the best truffles come later in the year when the morning and evening fog is thick. Like any member of the Tuberaceae family, it favors wet, foggy and somewhat cold conditions to grow (they thrive along riverbanks, in damp valleys and on north-facing hillsides). 

The outer surface of the white truffle is a dirty white, yellow-gray color with fine white veins. It should be firm when checking for freshness and should not smell of ammonia, but of combined aromas of garlic, hay and honey. 

One of the main differences between black and white truffles is that the white truffle should be eaten raw, shaved thinly onto anything you like. They pair particularly well with local Piedmontese dishes like tajarin (fresh, very thinly cut egg pasta), porcini mushrooms, risotto, carne cruda all’albese (thinly sliced raw veal typical of Alba) or fried eggs.

BLACK WINTER TRUFFLE

Unlike the white truffle, the black winter truffle (Tuber Melanosporum) can be cultivated by planting saplings of trees (the right species of course) whose roots have been mycorrhized. It takes around seven years from planting to harvest. In addition to Piedmont, black winter truffles, which make their entrance between December and March, can also be found naturally-growing in central Italy and France. They have a dark, black outer surface with internal white veins. 

Even though it’s much milder than the white truffle, the black winter truffle is still very versatile when it comes to cooking. Compared with the umami sensations of the white truffle, the black winter truffle has a more earthy aroma. As the variety is more robust, it can be cooked with meats and vegetables or eaten freshly grated. 

BLACK SUMMER TRUFFLE 

Summer truffles (Tuber Aestivum) can be found from early June to late fall and grow particularly well below hazelnut trees. They are very similar to black winter truffles from the exterior, but much nuttier in aroma and taste.  

Locals consider them to be the fratello povero (poor brother) of the white and black winter truffles, primarily because black summer truffles are more common and have a less intense flavor. 

Normally valued at 10 times less than the market value of the white ones, black summer truffles are the most accessible variety of truffle. (Think porcini vs. champignon.) 

If you want to learn more and taste these delicacies for yourself, the 92nd International Alba White Truffle Fair runs from October 8th through December 4th, 2022 in Alba (CN), Italy.