FROM LATE SEPTEMBER to January, it would be difficult to find an Italian chef who's not thinking about white truffles.
"White truffle season is an exquisite moment of the year. It enriches the moment between autumn and winter. It's a celebration of seasonality, of the expression of nature," says Umberto Bombana, executive chef of 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo.
Known as Hong Kong's king of white truffles, Bombana was once again invited by the regional council of Piedmont, Italy, to host the Worldwide Alba White Truffle Auction in Hong Kong, simultaneously via satellite with Piedmont.
White truffles fetch astounding prices, in part due to their rarity and elusiveness; they cost about HK$32,000 per kilo wholesale, while restaurants charge their customers about HK$100 per gram.
While black and bianchetto ("whitish" ones, grown in the spring) truffles can be cultivated, white truffles are unique as they grow only in the wild. They exist in symbiosis with trees, such as willow, linden, hazelnut and various types of oak. The botanical classification, Tuber magnatum pico, as well as their appearance, have led many to believe that white truffles are root vegetables like potatoes, but in fact, they are a type of fungi.
Just as flowers rely on wind or insects to carry their pollen in order to reproduce, white truffles rely on insects and animals such as snails or squirrels to distribute their spores, or germinal cells, which grow into truffles. "Truffles release gas when they're mature, as they need [to attract] animals to eat them," says Paolo Montanaro, CEO of TartufLanghe, one of Piedmont's largest truffle companies. That gas is the complex, captivating fragrance with notes of mushrooms, hay, wood, garlic and honey that has diners struggling for superlatives.
When using white truffles, Bombana says, "You have to be very sensible. [White truffles] bring subtlety to the plate."
Cream, eggs, cheese, pasta and risotto are his preferred pairings, and he suggests avoiding vinegar and strong reductions.
Andrea Fraire, chef de cuisine at Grissini at the Grand Hyatt, agrees. "I like truffle on fresh pasta with a simple sauce like butter sauce. This is the best way to enjoy the flavour of the white truffle."
Antimo Maria Merone, chef de cuisine at L'altro, likes to pair them with Jerusalem artichokes, which he says are also very common in Piedmont, but his favourite way to eat white truffles is with diced raw beef from the Fassone, the Piedmontese cattle. "The flavours are simple; it's the best way to enjoy something so expensive and precious," he says.
At 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo, Fassone veal is served roasted, with a veal jus that Bombana cooks with white truffle. "Only a little is used," he says, aware that he is committing what is tantamount to blasphemy by heating the fungi.
At L'altro, executive chef Philippe Leveille has designed an eight-course white truffle degustation, pairing it with everything from sweetbreads to custard ice cream.
"The tradition at this time of year is full of warm flavours and the dishes this season are rich in legumes, wild game, pork and cold cuts. The white truffle is not easy to match but binds very well with milk proteins, eggs, preserved fish, some wild game, and some seasonal vegetables such as pumpkin and celery," says Marco Gubbiotti, culinary director of Il Milione. The restaurant in Central is serving white truffle with ingredients like bottarga (dried fish roe), mallard and yellow squash.
Both being autumnal delicacies, white truffles and game meats have a long history of being used together. "People used to stuff a whole duck with truffles. You can imagine how many truffles can go into a duck. We can't do that any more. Truffles have always been precious, but with so many people wanting them, the demand has increased so much," says Bombana.
Hunting, for game or white truffles, marks the start of autumn in Piedmont. The truffle hunting season is tightly regulated, with a series of licences and restrictions governing where and how truffles can be hunted. "There is a lot of jealousy among truffle hunters. They don't go hunting when there is snow because other hunters might see their footsteps," says Bombana.
The hunting process is shrouded with enough mystery, lore and suspense for an Agatha Christie novel.
Montanaro says truffle locations are secrets kept guarded by families. "Truffle hunters pass down maps from generation to generation, marked with locations of the trees with truffles."
One of the many myths about hunting is that pigs are used, but in Italy, they were outlawed in 1985, as the pigs tended to eat the truffles. "The smell of the truffle is similar to pheromones produced by female pigs in the mating season," says Montanaro.
Nowadays, truffle hunters use dogs, many of which have been trained since they were puppies. The dogs locate the truffle and will begin digging for it. The hunter completes the task more carefully, as the truffle might break under the dog's paws. It is, however, common to see scratch marks from dogs on white truffles.
"I don't mind what they look like as long as they smell beautiful," says Bombana. "They might have scratches, or holes made by snails, but that's even better. It means they are good because they attracted these animals."
Good white truffles should also be firm to the touch and reasonably heavy, and large truffles are preferred as they hold moisture longer. Once dug up, white truffles should be consumed as soon as possible.
8 ½ Otto e Mezzo goes through at least a kilogram every day throughout the season, which lasts until January, although Bombana says "people seem to lose interest after Christmas".
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR TRUFFLE ...
Shop 16-21, Hutchison House, 10 Harcourt Road, Central, tel: 2481 1120
Tagliatelle with white truffle, bottarga and sage; risotto with white truffle, yellow squash and mallard, creamed with parmesan; poached egg with white truffles; Castelmagno fondue with crispy celery
8 ½ Otto e Mezzo
Shop 202 2/F, Alexandra House, 5-17 Des Voeux Road Central, tel: 2537 8859
Fassone veal tenderloin, fresh porcini mushroom, barley and natural jus with white truffle; confit of Taiyouran organic egg, romanesco purée, Iberico ham, chanterelle mushroom and white truffle
2/F Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, 1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2584 7722
"40 egg yolks" tagliolini, Italian butter, parmigiano reggiano and white truffle; house-made plin meat ravioli, veal juice and rosemary with white truffle
Grand Millennium Plaza, 181 Queen's Road, Sheung Wan, tel: 2167 8200
Soft-boiled eggs with anchovy dressing, chicory tip salad and caviar with shaved white truffle; risotto with wild mushrooms, shaved white truffle and duck foie gras
1/F The Fleet Arcade, Fenwick Pier Street, Wan Chai, tel: 2511 8912
Homemade tagliolini with parmigiano and white truffle; guinea fowl breast supreme with fontina cheese fondue, Parma prosciutto and white truffle
10/F The L Place, 139 Queen's Road Central, tel: 2555 9100
64 degree Celsius egg, cauliflower purée and white truffle with crispy sweetbread; hamachi (Japanese amberjack) with smoked potato purée and white truffle air; Piedmont soil, exotic fruit and custard ice cream with white truffle powder
5/F Harbourfront Landmark, 11 Wan Hoi Street, Hung Hom, tel: 3746 2733
Vercelli aged carnaroli risotto with Alba truffles, Red Cow parmesan and veal jus; pan fried Piedmont beef, foie gras, seasonal mushrooms and truffled potatoes mousseline