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What are truffles?
Truffles, or “vegetable diamonds”, are essentially hypogeus mushrooms of a group of fungi in the genus Tuber: they grow and reproduce underground. They proliferate in association with certain types of trees and shrubs as they have nutritional relations with their roots.
They are irregular shaped and may grow as large as a potato but are usually the size of a walnut or an egg. .... The outer surface of trifola called peridio, can be smooth and of a pale cream colour in the case of white truffles, whereas black truffles look fairly smooth and darker. The inner part, called gleba, has white-pink to dark brown-nut colour and a marbled effect which is due to yellow narrow veins on darker more fertile areas.
Truffles develop their very powerful aroma and flavour according to ripeness, consistency of parts, acidity of the ground and surrounding vegetation. Among the most productive trees are mainly oak, poplar, willow, lime, beech and hazelnut. A defining role in the growth of truffles is played by acidity of the ground and temperature, as they prefer calcareous, well-aerated grounds and a temperate climate.
Truffle gathering remains an ancient art practised by few expert and certified people, called trifolao, helped by trained dogs with a fine sense of smell. Truffle hunters use dogs to sniff out truffles and then they dug them up carefully covering their niche to make other truffles growing up.
Truffles are divided into two big groups: white truffles and black truffles.
Tuber magnatum (or “old gentlemen relish”) or precious white truffle grows spontaneously in some area in Piedmont (Langhe and Monferrato), in Lombardy and in some regions of central Italy. The gathering season is from October through December.
Tuber melanosporum or precious black truffle grows in the Apennine Mountains located between Umbria and Marche, in Piedmont, Veneto and Liguria. The gathering season is from November through March.
Considerably less precious types of truffles are: Tuber albidum or bianchetto and black summer truffle also known as the scorzone (Tuber aestivum)
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Preciuos Tuber Magnatum Pico is the undisputed king of Piedmont cooking. More recently, however, because of its high scarcety and high prices, it has been replaced by precious black truffle and black summer truffle or scorzone. White truffle has to be sliced on dish at the end of cooking just before serving it. Black truffle, on the contrary, can be incorporated to foods while cooking. Buying truffles from hunters might not be easy. It is surely better to buy them in specialised fairs (the most famous one is the Truffle Fair in Alba) or shops.
Although truffles are best eaten fresh, truffles can be also preserved wrapped in absorbent paper or cloth, store in an airtight jar in the lower part of the refrigerator.. Change the paper once a day to absorb any moisture that may cause rot. In these conditions a black truffle may be preserved for 8-10 days. A fresh white truffle has to be consumed within few days of harvest. However, we recommend consuming truffles as soon as possible to better taste their unmistakable flavour and aroma. Before cooking, gently wash truffles with water and brush and lightly pat dry.
What are mushrooms?
There are more than 700 species of mushrooms, but only 200 of them are considered as edible, about twenty as poisonous and the remaining ones as innocuous. Mushrooms are vegetables reproducing by spores which are not-visible to human eye, nestled under the cap and capable of germinating into a mass of white branching threads called micelia. According to the species, mushrooms may have different shape and size. The majority of mushrooms consists of a body fruit and a cap; some exhibits a deep a spongy mass instead of a cap. They are usually classified in families, genres and species. The flavour of mushrooms depends on the type of wood on which they grow on and this explains their diversity according to their place of origin. In Mediterranean countries mushrooms grow up both in valleys and in mountains. The gathering season usually starts in April and lasts until November, when temperature gets more rigid. Nevertheless, the best gathering season is the rainy period at the end of summer when cool temperature helps the growth of the most precious varieties, such as porcini mushrooms. The worst enemy is wind. Only few varieties of mushrooms can be cultivated; wild mushrooms, such as porcini, are surely the most valuable ones. Mushrooms life cycle can last five days. In favourable climate conditions only two or three days are necessary to pass from 1 to 10 cm. In mountain, where there is a larger thermal excursion, about twenty days are necessary to reach the highest point of mushroom life cycle. Mushrooms contain about 90% of water, fiber, and are a good source of vitamins B1, B2, D, minerals, and proteins (as many as in milk and eggs). They are very low in calories but do not eat too many mushrooms as they might cause digestive disease.
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Only specialised pickers can gather mushrooms as some of them are extremely hazardous when consumed. During the gathering season it is easy to find mushrooms in specializes shops, whereas cultivated mushrooms are available in supermarkets all year long.
It is important that mycologists analyse mushrooms. When choosing, look for mushrooms that have a good and concentrated smell and are firm and heavy. It is important to cook them fresh within two days of harvest. Some mushrooms, like porcini, should be consumed immediately. They should not be stored in fridge as flavour and consistency of their pulp could not last long. However, to store fresh mushrooms, keep them in a cool dry place, preferably on a wooden board. When cleaning before cooking, avoid washing mushrooms because they absorb water like a sponge. Instead, wipe them clean with a damp cloth and scrape them gently with a paring knife to remove bits of dirt, then rinse and dry them in a towel. Mushrooms can be consumed in different ways: fried, grilled, sliced thinly and cooked with olive oil, parsley and garlic, stewed with tomato sauce, raw or sliced thinly in salads. As most mushrooms is found during late summer and autumn, there are different methods to preserve harvested mushrooms all year long. As water promotes decay, drying up method is preferable even if it makes them loosing a bit of their flavour. Dried mushrooms can be perfectly stored in the refrigerator. It is possible to reconstitute dried mushrooms by placing them in warm water before use. Other common methods for preserving mushrooms is pickling in oil or in vinegar.