Commonly described as earthly with a pungent, musky aroma, truffles have been a culinary delicacy since the ancient Egyptians ate them covered in goose fat and the ancient Greeks and Romans sought them out for their therapeutic and aphrodisiac properties. Today, truffles are among the most expensive natural foods in the world. All of the top chefs, including Chef Lee, seem to be obsessed with truffles. The exotic ingredient can be seen throughout Sugar Beach Events menus from tarragon seasoned fries with truffle aioli to herb crusted bacon wrapped filet mignon with truffle butter. But what’s the big deal? Are truffles really worth all the hype?
A truffle is a type of fungus that typically grows deep underground, around the roots of certain trees such as oak, hazel, poplar, beech, and pine trees. These trees and truffles have a symbiotic relationship. The tree roots provide sugars to help the truffles grow and, in return, the truffles give the trees minerals and nutrients it gets out of the soil.
Since truffles can be tough to find, buried in the ground sometimes over a foot deep, they are hunted using specially trained animals. Pigs were traditionally used because the scent of a truffle is said to smell like testosterone of a boar, attracting the sow like a magnet. Unfortunately, not only do pigs love to eat truffles but they would often get very excited in their search, damaging the natural environment, and reducing the production rate. Using pigs to search for truffles has been outlawed in Italy since 1985, and truffle-sniffing dogs have replaced pigs.
Once the dog signals a possible find, the trufolau (expert truffle harvester) uses a narrow spade with a long handle to cautiously dig up the truffle, being extra mindful never to touch the fungus with his hands, which will cause it to rot. If the truffle isn’t ready, it is carefully reburied for future harvesting.
If it is ripe, time is of the essence. Once removed from the ground, the truffle immediately begins losing water to evaporation and must be canned, frozen, or flown fresh to fancy restaurants, ideally being consumed within four days.
Truffles are irregularly shaped, kind of like a potato, and they generally range between the size of a marble to a man’s fist. There are two main types of truffles, black and white, which are also distinguished by their growing season. The most flavorful and prized truffles are harvested in the winter season, which typically goes from October to March and peaks December to January. Along with having distinct appearances, the black truffle and the white truffle have different smells, tastes, and uses in cooking.
White truffles are actually more of a yellowish color and have a garlicky flavor, reminiscent of shallots. They are known to have a much more intense heady smell compared to black truffles. The scent is caused by gas trapped inside the truffle that is released as it is cut or shaved open. Because the gas evaporates when the truffle is cooked, white truffles are mostly used raw, sliced or shaved over prepared dishes so that their enticing aroma will create a memorable first impression.
Black truffles are grayish-brownish black on the outside, with white spidery veins webbing on the inside that indicate maturity. Their aroma is more subtle but longer lasting than the white truffle. The earthy chocolatey flavor of black truffles is best enhanced when cooked.
In its truest form, a truffle refers to a gourmet edible that belongs to the genus Tuber. There are other hypogeous (belowground) fungi known as false truffles because they look like truffles but are nowhere near as tasty as the real deal with some even considered inedible or toxic.
White truffles are mainly harvested in northern and central Italy, especially in the the city of Alba in the Piedmont region, which is why a white truffle is often marketed as a Piedmont truffle, Alba truffle, or an Italian white truffle. Black truffles, aka “Périgord Truffle” or “The Black Diamond of Provence,” are mostly foraged in Italy, Spain, and France. Truffles are also found in the wild throughout other European countries such as Croatia as well as in China, North Africa, the Middle East, and North America.
Truffles can’t really be farmed, raised in a greenhouse, or made in a laboratory. The wild fungus requires the right soil, climate, and trees to grow, and even with perfect conditions, there is no forcing Mother Nature to work her magic.
Despite being a complicated, time consuming, and expensive process, several countries continue to invest in truffle cultivation. The process involves inoculating an existing grove of trees with the truffle fungus or finding trees growing in an area that already has truffle fungus that are small enough to transplant, digging up the small trees, replanting them in a new area with a specific type of soil. Either way, you have to cross your fingers and wait around 10-20 years to see if truffle tubers appear. Truffle forests have been planted in the United Kingdom, United States, Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and South Africa.
Considering the market price of this prestigious ingredient, it’s easy to see the allure of joining the truffle industry. Urbani, the company that controls 70 percent of the world’s truffle trade, sells black truffles for $90 an ounce and white truffles for over $200 an ounce, not including shipping. In 2010, Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho paid a record amount of $330,000 at a charity auction for a pair of white truffles, including one weighing about 2 pounds.
If you would like to try truffles in your home cooking but don’t have the extra funds lying around to buy fresh, truffle oil is a more affordable alternative. Plus, the fat in oil helps to bring out the full truffle flavor.
Truffle oil can be controversial among purists because many brands consist of olive oil mixed with synthetic truffle aroma, but it’s a good way to get your feet wet. When buying truffle oil, stick with an established company like Urbani and check the ingredients. You will want to see olive oil and truffles. Terms such as “natural truffle flavoring”, “artificial flavoring”, or “truffle aroma”, mean that the oil was made with synthesized gases. The truffle oil you want to purchase is one that gets its flavor from real truffles that have been soaked in oil.
Truffle oil is very fragile and the gases that provide the essence will dissipate in heat, so you want to use truffle oil as a finishing touch rather than in the actual cooking preparation. In order to appreciate the truffle’s delicate taste, avoid overwhelming it with too many other strong flavors. Neutral starches such as risotto, pasta with cream sauce (not tomato sauce), baked or mashed potato, and over a crostini with cream cheese allow the truffle to take center stage. Other favorites include truffle oil drizzled over popcorn, carpaccio or thinly sliced specialty meats, cheese (especially triple crèmes and washed rind varieties), scallops, lobster, or crab.
The allure of the truffle is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps can best be summarized by a quote from French writer Alexandre Dumas who said, “The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: We do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: Eat us and praise the Lord.”