ST. PETERSBURG — French gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin once called them "the diamonds of the kitchen." White truffles from Alba in northern Italy are having a tremendous season by most accounts. Harvested in October and November, this year's underground mushrooms are said to be plentiful and of high quality. And while some still command a price higher than gold, experts say a great growing season means lower prices.
Alba's white truffles have a cult following: A bidder from Hong Kong spent $120,000 on a two-pound truffle at the invitation-only International White Truffle Auction earlier this month at the Hall of Masks in the Castle of Grinzane Cavour in Alba.
And now you can buy them at the Saturday Morning Market.
Fidel Gamboa moved from Alba to Tampa a year ago with his Italian wife. Paolo Cerutti, a fabled truffle hunter who leads truffling expeditions and owns a shop in Alba, is a family friend. Every few days during this year's season, Cerutti is cleaning up these things that look like gnarled, lumpy little potatoes, vacuum sealing them, nestling them into a cooler packed with ice and shipping them next-day air.
They clear customs, are inspected by the FDA and then they are in Gamboa's hands. He has set up a booth at the market under the somewhat prosaic banner, "Fresh Truffles." He charges $55 per ounce for fresh black truffles and $220 per ounce for white.
Why so much? White truffles cannot be cultivated. They must be found tucked under the dirt beneath oak, hazel, poplar or beech trees in the countryside around the cities of Alba and Asti. They tend to be smaller than black truffles with a heavenly aroma that gets descriptors like garlic, onion, corn and honey — only better than all of those.
Education has been a problem.
"Many people are a little bit afraid of truffles," Gamboa says. So he has cultivated relationships with restaurants like St. Petersburg's Birch and Vine, selling the truffles at cost so the restaurant can shave them over dishes to familiarize the local dining public.
Consumers are curious but intimidated: How do I pick the right one? What do I do with it once I get it home?
Chris Ponte, chef/owner of Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, breaks it down. He says smell is the most important part. It should be pungent (older truffles lose their smell). It should not be damp or squishy, but if it has a few holes or divots, don't worry about it. If you must store it, try a jar of dry rice — arborio is preferred — then later you can make risotto perfumed with truffle. Otherwise, use it as soon as possible.
"Just fettuccine with a nice light butter sauce, and a little Parmesan and maybe a farm-fresh egg," Ponte says. "Then shave the truffle over the top. You're just looking for something to deliver it to your mouth. When you're spending that kind of money, you want that truffle to shine through."
For more information on Gamboa's imported truffles, visit Facebook and search Tampa Bay Exclusive Brands Truffles.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter @lreiley.