Sunday, February 14, 2010

Truffles: The Forbidden Fungus

Truffles are probably the single most sought-after and expensive vegetable in the culinary world.  Traditionally, attempts to cultivate them have borne good, but not great results, although I understand that farmers are getting better and better all the time.  There are many many varieties of this little fungus that grows under ground, but two are commonly used in haute cuisine: tuber melanosporum and tuber magnatum, or the black and the white truffle respectively.

Truffles historically have been widely regarded as aprhodisiacs.  The Greeks and Romans were truffle crazy in their hedonistic societies.  Brillat Savarin, the great 19th century French gastronome, relays a story of a virtuous maid succumbing to a suitor after dining on truffle stuffed pheasant.  No doubt today, the smell of truffle from across a dining room gets many a heart palpitating.  I must confess that it is torturous for me to serve them to people - we usually shave them right at the table where I work.  This never fails to make me feel dreadfully ravenous.

Lore, legend, and commonly held beliefs about truffles are that people who forage for them use pigs to locate them under several feet of soil.  They usually grow among the root systems of certain types of trees - different species of truffles like different types of trees.  European truffles prefer oaks, and North American ones often grow under fir trees.  The reason pigs like them is because the chemical compound that makes truffles smell so delicious is the same compound as one found in boar saliva.  This drives the lady pigs wild and makes them want to root up the truffles to get at that sexy boar smell.  I am not making this up!

The only problem with all of this is that pigs, like humans, also like to eat truffles.  Therefore modern truffle hunters have trained dogs to locate them just as effectively as the pigs, only the dogs don't tend to eat the truffles.  Goats have also been used with some success.  New experiments are even being done with machines designed to detect them in ways I can't understand.  The market demand for them is such that people are willing and able to invest significant amounts of money into finding new and more efficient ways of tracking these little love nuggets down.

What you should know about truffles on your Valentine's Day date:
The summer version of the black truffle is actually a different species, although it is commonly referred to by the same name.  The inner flesh is pale in comparison to its winter counterpart, however.  These are less aromatic and usually significantly cheaper than the winter black truffle.  These are the kind that you can readily find canned or jarred in gourmet shops and sometimes more upscale supermarkets.  If your date springs for these you'll know that he or she is at least very sophisticated, don't feel obligated to go out again if you're not into it.

Winter black truffles are a little more common in restaurants though expensive to offer regularly.  These are sometimes referred to as Perigord truffles, and as you might guess, the best ones are usually from Perigord in Southern France.  Huge black truffles can sell for as much as the white ones, but usually they are a bit less expensive.  These are OK for a first date, but you should at least kiss goodnight and make an anticipatory remark regarding your next date together if all goes well.

White truffles are the rarest and most prized for their aromas.  It is widely thought that the best ones come from around the town of Alba in Northern Italy, the height of the season usually taking place in late November through December.  If you've ever had the pleasure of eating them, you'll know how wonderful and delicious they are.  They are also outrageously expensive and can sell for as much as $2000 a pound depending on the time of year.  It is possible but extremely rare that the season could last through February.  If so, don't order them on your date unless you plan on putting out in the near future!

From a culinary perspective, truffles are a pretty exciting ingredient for a cook to use.  The probability of creating complex and interesting flavors is high if using the simple components of fat and heat.   Heat makes the volatile compounds that carry the truffles scent evaporate into the air so that you can smell them even better.  Truffle essence is also extremely soluble in fat making them ideal candidates for risotto and even incorporating them into cheese.  Grains and spirits will also take a truffle scent when stored together.  The possibilities are limitless for the imaginative cook.

One thing is for sure.  These little fungi are amazingly delicious.  In the spirit of Valentine's Day, see if you can find a place to eat them, or even buy them at your local gourmet shop and prepare something special for your loved one.  They are delicious on scrambled eggs, stuffed into roast chicken, shaved onto buttered pasta, or sauteed with asparagus.  Give them a try if you haven't had them before and your nose, mouth, and significant other will be happy you did.  Bon appétit and Happy Valentine's Day!


  1. I had white truffle raviolis on my birthday a few years ago...which happened to be the last night of our honeymoon in Piemonte, Italy (where the white truffles come from). Utter heaven.

    That said, I would be saving truffle-eating for at least the second date. :-)

  2. jealous of your honeymoon and birthday meal! thanks for reading!