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Bite talks truffles with Ian and Francesco from Italian fine food company Bonny Vita

 

What is a truffle?

A truffle is a kind of fungus related to a mushroom, that grows underground, nurtured by the soil, water and tree roots. They are hard to the touch and look a bit like a small, knobbly potato with differing colours and texture according to the variety. They're a bit strange and a little mysterious really; they have no roots themselves, aren't actually attached to the trees and can appear fully formed overnight. Some ancient cultures thought they were actually a type of animal.

Are there different types of truffles?

Yes, there are different types of truffles, mainly divided into black and white varieties. Edible varieties each have distinctive, strong aromas and pungency with flavour notes that run from hazelnuts, mushroom, very savoury umami and chocolate with black truffles and from garlic, porcini, white pepper and parmesan with white truffles. From our land in Umbria we obtain four edible varieties of black and one white type.

Are they seasonal?

Yes. You can find truffles more or less throughout the year, but each season will bring a particular type; Alba truffles can be found only from September to December while the Perigord grows only from December to March for example. There is a calendar for the truffle varietals in Italy and strict laws that manage the harvesting so they can spore and flourish the following season.

Where can you find them?

Usually truffles can be found in forested areas because they live attached to the roots of certain trees such as oaks, hazelnut, lime and hornbeam. From these roots they wick the sap and develop part of their aroma, so a nutty tree produces nutty truffles and an oak a smoky, woody variety. Soil conditions such as PH, humidity and clay of the area must be just right for truffles to grow and the optimum conditions for good tasting ones are mainly found in France, Italy and Croatia. Although they can be found elsewhere, most aren't worth eating and have no commercial value, although some good black summer truffles have been found in the South of England and Australia has a respectable perigord. Chances are if you were lucky enough to find truffles in Scotland they wouldn't taste of much.

How do you find them?

In the past and still found today in some parts of France, truffle hunters use pigs to sniff them out from under the ground as pigs have a natural talent for finding them. Unfortunately, they also like to eat them so a big chunk of truffle hunters treasure can be gone before he can get to them. Although they are not natural trufflers like pigs, the Italians trained hounds to do the job as dogs do not like the taste. The trained dog will find the spot and start to dig excitedly then the truffle hunter will take over and carefully dig the truffle out the soil, rewarding the dog with a biscuit if he's really found one. A good truffle dog is a real asset to the hunter, saving him time and making him more money. Our chief dog is a hyperactive but very talented Hungarian Vizsla called Kitsi who just loves her job!

What is the best way to eat truffles?

If the truffles are fresh then they are best raw as they must not be cooked or you lose their flavour; you simply shave or grate them over the dish. Simplicity is the key for Italians who tend to enjoy them straight onto a steaming bowl of pasta, stirred into a risotto, laid onto resting fish or meat. In the UK, truffles are less prevalent of course and thus more expensive, so chefs here tend to be more resourceful and work clever with what they have by incorporating our truffle products such as oil, juice and sauces to maximise the flavour and eating experience. These are simple techniques with quality products which home cooks can try too. 

Black truffles and white truffles have two different flavour characteristics which best match certain foods so complement accordingly. As a general rule, both of them are equally good paired with potatoes, eggs, asparagus and artichokes. Black truffles are great with red meat, game, trout or salmon while white truffles go with cheese, white meat and white fish. 


Are they expensive?

Yes fresh truffles generally are, but some varieties cost a lot more than others. For example the prized white Alba truffle is currently the most expensive foodstuff in the world at £3.5-4000 per kg as it needs just the right combination of factors to grow and is only found in the Piedmont region in Northern Italy, while the black Perigord is best from certain regions in France and Italy and can cost £1-2000 per kg; the prices fluctuate as a commodity does. However, the black summer truffle, although less strongly flavoured, is more commonly found and can sell for £250 a kg. However, you may only need 25-30gr to do a meal for four and our truffle products can give you a real truffle hit - for example we have a truffle salsa boasting a generous and unique 15% fresh truffle content for a fraction of the price. 

What type of wines would you pair with truffles?

They are a rather versatile pairing as it depends what kind of truffles you are about to taste and with what they are being served with. You will find that some of the world's great restaurants and their sommeliers will advocate both whites and reds with either white or black truffles depending on the dish. As a general rule, you want wine that isn't too acidic and tannin heavy that doesn't overpower the truffle but complements the pungent, mushroomy and woody flavours and aromas; a red with earthiness, some spice and dried fruits like an aged burgundy or a fresher, lighter pinot noir. A dry white with good minerality, such as a riesling or trebbiano or something with smoky, nutty notes like a white burgundy. If in doubt, quality Prosecco or champagne is always a good choice - my dad always says 'Expensive truffles, expensive wine'!


What makes them such a gourmet food?

Because they have unique flavour and smell characteristics that can turn some people off but are utterly addictive to others. The musky smell and distinctive flavour they have is linked to the testosterone they contain and they are a rather cerebral food that can seduce the mind and make the savoury taste-buds crave them in anticipation.  It's also the price of course, because of their relative rarity; they are very difficult to domesticate and have to be foraged. 


What is your favourite truffle inspired meal?
Francesco: If we are talking about the black truffles, I would say spread on warm lamb or grated onto salmon. If we are talking about white truffle, when combined with mushroom or a four cheese ravioli is to die for. 
Ian: It probably doesn't get any simpler, but as utterly indulgent as sitting with Umbrian producer and truffle guru, Roman Moscatelli and eating lots of his perigord grated fresh into extra virgin olive oil then spread thickly on crostini like a tapenade.  


If a truffle were a person who would it be and why (think musician, actor)?

Francesco: Well, if they were a classical musician, the white truffle is Debussy: quiet, calm but deep...the perigord is Beethoven or Wagner for sure! Strong, assured and explosive.
Ian: The aforementioned Roman Moscatelli who owns the Moscatelli brand. We stayed at his hotel and it has a large deli next to reception, the whole place smells of truffle, pecorino and charcuterie. There is a massive picture on the wall of him there as a young man smelling a massive perigord truffle looking a bit like Marlon Brando in the Godfather sniffing the rose - he's dedicated his life to them and is the truffle don to us! 


Have Scots embraced the truffle? 

People here that know truffle will taste our products and buy them, as they recognise the quality as very good. People trying truffle for the first time, we find they really either like it or they don't, it's that kind of food. Those that do however, often begin their truffle journey with a product like truffle honey or salt then come back to try other products like truffle butter or salsa once they have acquired the flavour for it. Increasingly, we are seeing things like truffled fries and more dishes with elements of truffles on menus here so there is increasing awareness. Whether they ultimately like it or not, we believe everyone who appreciates food should experience truffle at least once in their lives


Can you suggest a way to use the truffle in traditional Scottish dishes?

Black truffle, freshly shaved onto smoked or cooked salmon with a dash of truffle oil and white or black truffle melting into butter on an Angus steak as it rests. A successful pairing with the whisky companies we have had tastings with is oatcakes with a strong Scottish blue cheese and a drizzle of white truffle acacia honey served with a dram of Speyside. We have also tried black truffle in haggis which worked really well. Ultimately, we want to develop our own truffle products that fuse our Italian truffles with the great Scottish produce we have here such as cheeses, sea salts, oils and honeys to give a true taste of  'La Bonny Vita' 
 

 

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