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All About Truffles

All About Truffles

When we think of the most expensive gourmet foods in the world, truffles make the top of anyone’s list. They are a true delicacy. Essentially a rare and stunningly flavorful mushroom, just a few shavings of truffle on a dish can add hundreds of dollars to the price tag. So what is it about truffles that makes them so desirable and worth their weight in gold?

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover

If you look at a truffle in its natural form, it’s not the most attractive food in the world. It looks like a tiny knobby potato! It won’t win any food beauty contests to be sure, but when you start to slice through it, the distinct aroma lets you know that you’ve got something very special. There is no smell or taste like it on earth. Some truffle lovers find its chemistry intoxicating. And most importantly, truffles must be found, they cannot be grown or manufactured. Mother Nature is the only producer of the truffle.

The Nose Knows

Truffles grow wild underground, at the roots of trees, and even though pigs were traditionally used to find them, they have fallen out of favor as the primary truffle-hunting source. Why you ask? Pigs hunt for truffles naturally because they love them. They want to eat them. They are drawn to them and can smell them far underground (as far down as three or more feet). Pigs aren’t interested in finding them and handing them over. Truffle hunting with a pig used to be a two-person job. Once the pig had found the truffle, a second person was on stand-by to get it out of the way so the truffles could be retrieved before they were eaten! The result was a very angry pig.

Now, man’s ever-faithful best friend, the dog, is used primarily to hunt truffles. Dogs are much easier to travel with, and they can be trained. Most importantly, truffle hunting can now be done with just one person. When the trained truffle hunting dog, whose ability to distinguish between smells is the best of any animal in the world, finds the truffle, it has no desire to eat it. It will gladly hand it over to its master in exchange for another kind of treat. Truffle hunting dogs are a prized possession and valued immensely by their owners, and of course by those who adore truffles. To obtain a dog trained in the discovery of truffles, prepare to pay thousands of dollars.


Not All Truffles Are Created Equal

While the summer black and white truffles are quite delicious and still sought after, they are the least expensive variety of European truffle, sold at a fraction of the price of winter truffles. Having said that, you will still pay $500/lb for a summer truffle! The reason they are less expensive is simply that they are found in the summer months, as opposed to the more desirable winter months. Their aroma and flavor are not as strong as their winter truffle counterparts.

The most desirable truffles are the French winter black (Perigord) truffle and the Italian winter white (Alba) truffles. Their harvesting in the peak winter months of January and February make both the winter white and winter black amazingly flavorful. The winter white is equal to its winter black counterpart as far as flavor and aroma, or even superior, but the winter black’s flavor properties last longer than the winter white. When you slice into a winter white truffle, the countdown begins. It releases its gasses and quickly fades. It is best to use the white truffle as a luxurious garnish shaved on top of a pricey dish. The winter black truffle can be used in cooking as well as shaved on top, adding depth of flavor to any recipe.

Black Market Intrigue

When something is rare and expensive, you can bet there will be a black market for it. In Europe, the truffle black market is downright scary. Truffle hunters and their dogs have been robbed, beaten, and even murdered for their precious cargo.

Clandestine transactions out of the backs of trucks can be seen in towns and along the side of country roads, where truffle thieves sell their stolen goods to anyone willing to pay. Those who purchase these black market truffles tend to ask no questions. They have what they came to get, and it doesn’t matter to them its source. Legitimate and professional truffle hunters must take great care in their pursuit, because if they don’t, it can cost them their lives.

Accept No Substitutes

For those who don’t want to buy black market truffles, or for that matter pay the market price for “legitimate” truffles, the Chinese have brought to the market their own truffles. This product, for the truffle connoisseur, is disastrous.

For an authentic truffle experience, the truffle must be taken out of the ground at exactly the right time. A trained truffle dog knows by smell when a truffle is ripe and ready to be enjoyed. Chinese truffle hunters do not use dogs, but instead rake the earth for truffles themselves and when they find them, dig them up immediately. There is no care taken to ensure that the truffle is ready. In addition, their climate and terrain does not produce the same aroma or flavor that the European truffle is famous for. The result is a far inferior truffle.

Unscrupulous truffle sellers have taken to mixing in Chinese truffles with the more expensive truffles. Because of this, giant truffle companies such as Urbani in Italy have to go through all of their truffle purchases by hand and separate the Chinese truffles from the European truffles. They simply can’t risk an inferior truffle making its way into one of their quality-controlled products.

All This for a Fungus

If you’ve never tried a truffle infused dish or condiment, hopefully after you read this, you will be tempted to see what all the fuss is about. And if you have tried truffle, you will have a greater appreciation for everything that goes into serving them. For the truffle lover, we know you’re hooked, and your admiration only grows the more you learn about this unique delicacy. Yes, all of this is for a fungus, but what an amazing fungus it is!