Into the Underground:
By Tejal Rao
Illustration by Dimitri Drjuchin
October 2006
Chef Massimiliano Convertini of Antico Bottega del Vino-New York, NY

Poached Quail Egg with Sautéed Asparagus and White Truffle
» Risotto with White Truffles in a Crunchy Parmigiano Reggiano Basket

It’s no coincidence that white truffles have an intense, head-filling scent. Buried underground without open gills or a breeze to help them multiply, the tightly-bundled veins of contained spores must attract woodland creatures to follow their noses down into the mud to eat them, digest them, and help them reproduce. Their evolutionary trick? Aroma, in the form of distinct sulfur compounds. While we can’t nose them out from above ground, the truffle’s scent has inspired many forced agricultural efforts. But the truffle grows in specific soil and climate and then only in symbiosis with its partner in evolution—in Europe often an oak tree. With these conditions met, it harvests well after ten years or so of underground growth, making controlled cultivation pretty unsuccessful. Without the reliability of farming, we count on territorial mushroom hunters to return to truffling land each season with their trained dogs or pigs to sniff out and uncover the goods.

Chef Massimiliano Convertini, of Antico Bottega del Vino in New York, composes an annual tasting menu as the season picks up, flying in over 2 pounds a week from Italy and paying an average of $1800 a pound. This season, the best he’s had in 5 years thanks to Alba’s fair and humid weather, he’s paying $2000 for the “big potatoes” that are practically hole-free, firm, and velvet to the touch. He counts on his purveyors to transport the truffles at the right temperature and cautions against cold cargo shipping that freezes and damages the product before it reaches his kitchen. Once the truffles are safely in, Convertini cleans the remaining mud from their surface with the hard bristles of a dry nail brush and uses a small knife for any deeply-lodged dirt. He stores them in the fridge in stainless steel containers filled with double-functioning Arborio rice. The rice absorbs excess moisture, keeping the truffle dry and protected from moisture-loving microbes while also taking in the emitted aroma to make for a perfumed risotto at the end of the week—which is just about as long as the truffle will last before it starts to fade.

Although Convertini strictly features Italian truffles, in their season and with proper handling Oregon white truffles are also worth featuring in winter menus. Their aroma and flavor are a product of their specific place and they deserve equal care and attention. While truffle purists remain devoted to the Italian or French varieties, and some have been put off by a bad harvest or Oregon’s undeveloped reputation, American-grown truffles have evolved similarly. The Oregon white truffle grows in symbiosis with Douglas Fir trees and must also persuade squirrels and other animals to dig underground and help it multiply. Its evolutionary trick is the same as its Italian cousins: it’s aromatic and delicious by nature. For chefs who can’t afford the $2000 commitment to fly truffles in from Alba, the Oregon white truffle is considerably less at $200 a pound and much less risky to transport. And since minimizing the time from harvest to kitchen is vital to serving a quality product and preserving the truffle’s delicate flavor, Oregon’s truffles should not be overlooked.

While we make a lot of fuss over them in the kitchen, truffles are seldom cooked. Like most chefs, Covertini uses a mandolin to shave raw slices tableside onto simple dishes that amplify the truffle’s inherent flavor, showcasing them on rich but fairly neutral canvases like poached eggs or creamy risotto. Of course buying wholesale truffles at such high prices means that each of these simple dishes runs diners over a hundred dollars. But it only seems excessive. Convertini’s $65 Tartufo Carpaccio, a plate of ultra-thin slices seasoned and served neat, actually presents the simplest, most unadulterated truffle experience possible: pure texture and taste free from any contrasting flavors. And remember, the simpler the dish the more you can highlight the white truffle’s persistent evolutionary instrument: its aroma.


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