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
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
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
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!