At this time of the year, the city of Alba, in Piedmont, northern Italy, is windy and chilly. Nestled among snow-capped mountains, Alba is a picturesque place, surrounded by the 14th and 15th century fort towers that give it its nickname “city of 100 towers.”
“It’s autumn in the beautiful Italian mountain regions of Piedmont,” said Francesco Greco, a chef from Hotel Indonesia Kempinski.
“The golden leaves are falling and mushrooms are sprouting in the forests. Rich aromas of roasted chestnut mix with the cool breezes wafting through the streets of Italian cities.”
Alba has long been a darling of the culinary world. The produce of the city includes the velvety Barolo and Barbaresco wines, as well as its succulent white truffles, Tuber magnatum Pico .
Due to their scarcity and high price, Alba’s white truffles, or tartufo bianco d’Alba , have been compared to gold (in reality gold costs over three times as much).
This creamy beige mushroom, priced at Rp 95,000,000 ($10,000) per kilogram, is not easy to find. During autumn and winter, trifolao , or truffle hunters, painstakingly comb the mountainous region in order to find the exotic mushrooms.
These mushrooms, which are not suitable for cultivating, grow underground, usually around the roots of oaks, poplars, willows, limes and hazelnut trees. Trained dogs are used to sniff and dig out the buried treasure.
In Alba, the annual white truffle festival is held each weekend from the start of October until mid-November to celebrate the harvest.
In Jakarta, a handful of seasoned chefs have been focusing on white truffles at some of the city’s finest restaurants.
“Alba truffles are one of the most sought after ingredients in Western cuisine,” said Greco, who served up the region’s white truffles in his hotel’s Casa d’Oro Italian restaurant from Nov. 6 to 15.
“People have waited all year for the truffle harvest,” said Igor Macchia, a chef from the La Credenza restaurant in Canavese, Italy, who came to Jakarta to present a white truffle wine dinner at The Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, Pacific Place, on Nov. 13.
“In [Alba’s annual] festival, you’ll have people coming only to eat the truffles.”
“These days, [the truffles are] becoming more difficult to find,” said Loris Pistillo, a chef from the Taman Wantilan Restaurant, Four Seasons Resort Bali, Jimbaran Bay.
“They’re using chemicals for the vineyards around the mountains, so the truffles do not come out easily.”
Pistillo is presenting authentic Italian recipes using the white Alba truffles at the Four Seasons Hotel, Jakarta, until Nov. 30.
His repertoire, which includes seared king scallop with Parmesan, soft polenta and Alba truffle, grilled veal medallion and seared foie gras with shaved Alba truffle and fresh egg pasta fettuccine with Alba truffle, will be served for dinner at the Steak House.
Italian chef Antonio Massagli of the InterContinental Hotel, Jakarta, also has Alba white truffles on his special menu at the Scusa Italian restaurant, until Nov. 30.
His menu includes green asparagus with poached egg and Parmesan, classic Parmesan risotto with sauteed chicken liver and pan-fried veal medallions with chestnuts and shallots, served with white truffle scented mashed potatoes.
“You don’t cover it with your food,” Macchia said. “With truffle dishes, the truffle is the main ingredient. You just have to find something that matches with the truffles.”
Olivier Piganiol, the executive chef of the Dharmawangsa Hotel, Jakarta, described the truffle’s flavor as terroir , or earthy.
For his upcoming New Year’s Eve menu, the chef will be presenting the white Alba truffle with risotto and roasted French quail in truffle juice dressing at the Sriwijaya fine dining restaurant.
“It’s a very classic combination,” Piganiol said. “Risotto is the best way to eat truffles from Alba as to keep the quintessence of flavor.
“The quail from the Bresse area in France is the perfect match to all of them.”
For Piganoil, the rustic recipe describes a warm family dinner and shows respect for the quality products.
“For me, truffles mean the soil. The soil smells like the truffles,” Macchia said. “If you go around in Alba, at this time of the year, you can smell around the trees, the grass, the hazelnuts, you’ll remember the smell of the truffles. It’s a mixture of a lot of natural things.”
When using Alba white truffles, these chefs keep the recipes authentic and straightforward, in order not to ruin the flavor of the truffles.
“And you’d better keep it to simple food,” Pistillo said. “Otherwise, you won’t really experience the aroma.”
Massagli agreed. “The best way to use the white truffle is to shave it fresh on top of a dish,” he said. “The taste of the dish should not be too aggressive or strong, so that we can taste the real fragrance coming out of the truffles.”
“Even if you warm up your hand, you put one slice of truffle [on your hand] and a rock of salt, mama mia , you’ll taste heaven,” Pistillo said.
However, these “white diamonds” are not a pretty sight. The mushrooms are almost round in shape with a lumpy and knotty texture. When sliced open, they have a marbled interior with ivory veins, emitting a pungent garlicky smell.
But Macchia said, “It is an intoxicating aroma. It’s like Chanel No. 5.”
When I took a bite of a tissue-thin slice of white truffle at the Four Seasons, a delicious robust earthy flavor burst onto my palate. However, Wiwien, a dinner guest who had just tasted Alba white truffles for the first time just looked confused.
“It’s really nothing much,” she said.
Unlike its black counterpart that can be cooked and boiled, Alba white truffles should be served fresh.
“You just slice it raw and put it on top of the food,” Macchia said. “If you cook it, you will lose the aroma.”
Truffles are flown express from Italy to Indonesia. To maintain their freshness, they are kept in air-tight containers with grains of risotto rice or eggs.
“The eggs help to preserve the truffle because they take the humidity off the truffle,” Macchia said.
The container is then stored in a refrigerator to maintain a cool temperature. Although Alba white truffles can be stored for up to 10 days, they lose moisture on a daily basis.
“Every day, white truffles lose 20 percent of their weight,” Macchia said. “And with the cost of truffles, 20 percent is a lot of money.”