The Diamonds of the Kitchen
Truffles are a subterranean fungi that flourish via a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain trees, e.g., beech, hazel, oak, etc. They are not mushrooms which are a completely different fungi. They are also not to be confused with the chocolate confection that bears the same name.
Truffles are irregularly spherical in shape, and vary in size from a walnut to a baseball. There are hundreds of varieties found the world over, but only a handful are highly prized as food. Indeed, the famous French gastronome Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), dubbed these precious and extremely costly comestibles the "Diamonds of the Kitchen."
Truffles were relished by the ancient Greeks and Romans and were thought to be an aphrodisiac. Louis XIV and Napoleon were enthusiastically fond of them. They are utilized in various European cuisines, especially French and Italian. Extravagantly priced, the average American will only encounter them at the most luxurious restaurants.
Expensive Little Fungi
Depending on a host of variables, some truffles have sold for as much as $6,000 a pound. However, the recent financial woes of several countries have triggered a curtailment of lavish expenditures. Demand for truffles has tapered off sparking a concomitant decrease in prices. But still, prices are exorbitant.
While preparing this article I called a well known gourmet food purveyor in Florida. Their current price for the avidly coveted white truffle of northern Italy is $1,000 a pound. Similarly, an upscale establishment in my neck of the woods will shave a light sprinkling of truffles on your entree for an additional charge of $50.
So why are truffles so expensive and what is their mysterious allure? As to the cost, as always, it's primarily a matter of supply and demand. Truffles are by no means ubiquitous. They are difficult to find, available only at certain times of the year, and are notoriously difficult to cultivate.
Specially trained pigs and dogs are used to scour the forest, sniffing out these gastronomic gems on a piecemeal basis. The entire process is quite mercurial. Ascertaining which trees will harbor them is unpredictable. Moreover, a multitude of biological factors influence their size and taste. Thus, the resulting quality, even when they are discovered is hit or miss.
Attempts to cultivate truffles have met with limited success. This is by no means analogous to planting wheat fields, like the millions of acres in America alone. "Trufficulture" is spotty, capricious, and never as bountiful as common vegetables. To make matters worse they have a restricted window of harvestability.
Ok, so the supply is limited. But what's up with the demand? Why are they so cherished? The best answer I can give you is to experience them. The taste of truffles is thoroughly ineffable. "Earthy" is the most common adjective but they nevertheless defy description. Their flavor is beguiling, unique, and evinces an addictive, insatiable quality. If your palate is amenable to truffles, you will be thoroughly seduced. There is no other food that tastes like a truffle.
The Two Most Popular Varieties
As stated, there are many varieties of truffles from all over the globe. But the two best are the black or Perigord truffle, and the veritably sacrosanct white truffle, a.k.a., trifola d'Alba or Alba Madonna of Piedmont, Italy. The black truffle grows solely in conjunction with oak trees almost exclusively in Europe, and chiefly in France. It is less expensive, relatively speaking, and not quite as ethereal as its white counterpart.
The white truffle hails from the Langhe region of Piedmont, principally in and around the town of Alba. Alba is a charming town, rich in Roman in Medieval history. It has a vibrant shopping district, fabulous restaurants, and is surrounded by the magnificent vineyards of Piedmont. My wife and I spent one day there and it was memorable. We shopped for wine, clothes and truffle products, visited vineyards, and dined on sumptuous food.
The white truffle of Alba is the most cherished, elusive, and expensive of all. It's sublime aroma and taste is unparalleled. Generally they are smaller than their Francophilic counterparts but like black truffles, are only available in fall. Autumn ushers in a cavalcade of truffle related events, auctions, fairs, and special restaurant menus. Naturally Alba is the epicenter of these festivities but truffle related events occur in many countries at this time.
What To Do With Truffles
Truffles are at their best within a few days of being unearthed. To fully appreciate them, pair them with simpler foods. The truffle is the star of the show and serves to accent the target dish. Given their cost, the last thing you want to do is dilute their essence in a complicated or overpowering dish. Typical truffle companions are scrambled eggs, omelets, pastas, salads, rice, etc.
Truffles are normally thinly sliced or shaved, sometimes with specially designed implements, and then sprinkled over or mixed into such dishes. They are also incorporated into pates, terrines, mousses, butter, cheese spreads, and other similar victuals. They synergistically marry with liver and particularly foie gras concoctions. Goat cheese and white truffles is another delicious combination. Pair them with a Piedmontese red such as Barolo or Barbera or an earthy Burgundy for a match made in heaven.
Truffle oil is a delightful way to introduce the redolence of truffles into dishes. Real white truffle oil is olive oil infused with white truffles. But beware, the market abounds with imitations: knock-offs that employ synthetically produced truffle essence.
Although not a perfect discriminator, price can often distinguish the bona fide from the ersatz products. For example, my local supermarket sells "white truffle oil" which is nothing more than California vegetable oil with fake truffle flavoring. An eight oz. can costs $16. By contrast, I paid almost twice that for a container half that size in Alba, but it was the real McCoy.
Likewise, many black truffle products commonly rely on black truffles from China, America, Australia, New Zealand etc., as opposed to the aforementioned Perigord truffles of France. Not that these truffles are bad. I never met a truffle I didn’t like. But you need to check labels if you wish to avoid being duped and/or desire to experience the ultimate in what truffles have to offer.
Contributing Writer - Chef Mark Vogel