Few ingredients are more expensive and alluring than the truffle. Consumed as a delicacy throughout history, truffles have been revered for their flavor, rarity and aphrodisiac properties. Growing hidden among the roots of oak, hazelnut and beech trees, many of the world’s truffles are found in Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe.
French gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin aptly dubbed truffles “the diamond of the kitchen”. An evolution of the Latin word tuber (meaning “swelling” or “lump”) truffles are indeed bulbous and misshapen, bearing little resemblance to other mushrooms in the fungi family. They are also one of the costliest foods in the world, fetching upwards of $3,000 per pound. That’s a fancy mushroom!
What exactly is a truffle?
We’re talking fancy fungus here, not candy. A truffle is any of several species of fungus that grows entirely underground. The fungus is a network of threads that wind around and into the roots of trees. Oak trees are the most common, but truffles have been discovered under Beech trees, Poplar trees, and a few more. The trees give the fungus sugar made from sunlight, the fungus gives the trees minerals and nutrients it gets out of the soil. It’s one of nature’s finest symbiotic relationships.
How are truffles hunted?
A truffle “orchard” is invisible, with the precious crop hiding about six inches deep in the earth. To reproduce, the fungus threads grow a big smelly underground tuber. The tuber is the fruiting body and the part that we’re all antsy to eat. The tuber has such a strong smell that animals can smell it underground. They dig up the tuber to eat it, which spreads dirt and spores all over the place. Some of the spores might land next to tree roots and grow into new fungal threads.
Since truffles grow out of plain sight, trufficulteurs, or truffle hunters, employ the help of animals to find them. Animals have always been used to hunt out wild truffles. Historically they were hunted by wild boar —females in particular —who were just as fond of eating truffles as we humans were. Scientifically speaking, truffles contain a similar compound to androstenol, the sex pheromone found in boar saliva, which leads the pigs straight to the buried mushrooms. It might also explain why truffles are considered an aphrodisiac. While pigs are programmed to truffle-hunt, using them to do so is quite problematic since they have a tendency to devour the truffles once they’ve unearthed them!
Nowadays it’s more common to use dogs to hunt truffles, as they can be trained not to eat the truffles. (Poor dogs.)
What differentiates different truffles?
Truffles are categorized mainly by color: white, black and burgundy. Each of these varieties can be sub-categorized into a summer or winter truffle, depending on when they were harvested.
- Italian white truffles– the most valuable on the market – have a garlicky, earthy flavor and musky aroma. These truffles are prized over all other varieties because their flavor is more intense, and fades more quickly. The outside of the truffle is tan in color and the inside is a pale cream with brown marbling. These white truffles or, “trifola d’Alba”, are found in the Piedmont area of northern Italy.
- Black trufflesare most commonly found around oak trees in Southern France and are oftentimes referred to as Black Périgord truffles, named for that specific region. While their flavor is less robust than their white counterparts, it has more longevity.
- The lesser-known burgundy truffle, with a dark reddish brown skin, has marked notes of hazelnut. They also have a wider growing distribution than white and black truffles, as they are found throughout Europe.
The million dollar question: why are truffles so dang expensive?!
Like many gourmet products, their extraordinary expense is directly related to their limited supply and the labor required to harvest them. They only like very specific kinds of soil and trees. Because they live inside tree roots, you can’t just plant truffle seeds. Usually you must find trees small enough to transplant growing in an area that already has truffle fungus, and dig up the small trees and plant them in a new area with the right kind of soil. The fungus that is living inside their roots will hopefully be transferred to the new area, and in 10-20 years, you might start getting truffle tubers there.
In the 1800s, many truffle forests were planted by this method in France, and truffles were common in the 1800s and 1900s. Everyone in France could afford them. However, World War II damaged the French countryside so much that many of the truffle forests were lost. Truffles are much rarer now than they have ever been in the past. In the last 30 years, people have started planting truffle forests again – in France, Australia, the US, Chile, and New Zealand – so the price of truffle should go down over time as more truffle forests start producing tubers.
How to cook with a fresh truffle
If you should find yourself buying some of these “diamonds of the kitchen”, you’ll want to be sure you use them correctly. There are a few universal rules to cooking with truffles. Firstly, remember that the truffle flavor will dominate any dish, so make certain it doesn’t have to compete. Fat is your friend when it comes to truffles. The richness of fat enhances the truffle flavor which is why it’s most often paired in butters and oils. Remember a little goes a long way. When using fresh truffles, maximize the flavor by slicing paper thin flakes on top of dishes, only using 8 – 10 grams per person. More does not necessarily mean better in this instance, rather a waste of a rare ingredient.
How should I store a fresh truffle?
Store your precious truffles with great care, as exposure to air is what ultimately exhausts the spore of its aroma and flavor. They can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks or kept frozen in a vacuum sealed glass container for up to 6 months. Lastly, truffles can be stored submerged in uncooked rice grains to emulate their natural habitat and regulate their moisture content.