Arguably perhaps, truffles are the most sought after high end culinary item. Is it because they are rare or is it because they are in fact, THAT DELICIOUS? It sure isn’t because of their looks. They aren’t beautiful at all. And they stink. I find them to be one of those things we eat that make a person wonder who had the idea to put it in their mouth first. They are rare it’s true. Relatively tough to come by and prohibitively expensive but why? That’s not a simple question to answer. Let’s scratch well below the surface and look at many of the facets of what makes the truffle such a culinary gem.
Demand far exceeds supply
Truffles are a mysterious thing. You see, they grow underground on the roots of certain types of trees and no human can detect where or when they will be ready for harvesting. How are they located? Special pigs and trained dogs can sniff them out. Pigs have become less desirable a hunter as they will sooner eat the truffle than a table scrap. A dog is a much better option because of the nature of the dog. It wants to please their master so it will show more restraint but still require extensive training. There is a special curly haired breed called Lagotto Romagnolo that hunts truffles like no other. It is essential that the dog owner bring treats to reward the canine or thousands of dollars will be lost into the dog’s belly. Truffles are such a competitive industry that dogs worth $10,000+ can be stolen or killed/poisoned to undermine the competition. Ruthless.
Difficult to cultivate
Truffle trees can be difficult to cultivate. Stateside there are a handful of growers to buy trees from to create a truffle orchard but there are no guarantees that they will produce the valuable tuber. Plant them, wait a few years and see what happens. You could be in for a very long wait and have to deal with thieves in the night digging in your orchard or animals sniffing them out before your precious pooch does. These thieves rake through private property orchards and honestly what they find isn’t in the category of highly prized mushrooms. They are young with little flavor and only go for a fraction of what a fully mature truffle does. Many chefs want to know where and how the truffle was sourced for a few reasons, one of which is make sure it’s been ethically harvested.
Oregon and Washington State enjoy a successful truffle growing climate and California wine country is being looked at as the next big producer of domestic truffles. Domestic varieties aren’t as highly prized as Italian and French truffles but they still have delicious value. In Europe, oaks and resinous pines are mainly where the tubers are found. The most coveted is the Italian white truffle (it’s more of a blonde gray) which is found in Italy and almost as valuable black truffle which is foraged in France. The white truffle is enjoyed raw, namely shaved over noodles buttered with GOOD butter. Not the random quarters you find for $4 a pound-make your own butter if you can. Alternately you may see them showcased on other blank canvases like risotto or eggs. The black truffle needs a bit of culinary coaxing in the form of heat to release its flavor.
A seasonal item
As with many produce items truffles have a season. It’s a short one and that adds to the scarcity of supply. The white Alba truffles are foraged in October to December. The black Perigord is dug up December through March. Summer truffles have a season as well but they aren’t as flavorful as the winter truffles. Truffle seasons are like wine in that there are good years and not as good years based on weather conditions. You see truffles serve a purpose in the ecology of the tree, balancing mineral nutrients and moisture. Their ability to help their host increase drought tolerance is evident when you cut one open see how they pull it off. The complex maze of veins that transport the life giving nourishment is pretty spectacular. A dry season can mean a poor harvest.
Chefs are snobs and the truffle parade
I say this as a professional chef and avid home cooks will agree: selecting our ingredients by hand excites us. It inspires us. Here is where we worship Mother Nature and her diversely mesmerizing bounty. It is glorious and where the creative process begins. Like a beautiful woman may inspire a painter, a beautiful basket of produce can inspire a chef. The chef will examine the truffles by eye, by hand and of course by nose, before turning over the cash.
Truffle brokers aren’t treated like the other food purveyors a restaurant has which only enter through the back door to the kitchen. Like a dirty secret. The Truffle broker is dressed well and paraded through the main dining room with his or her wares close to the side. Sometimes they may smell unfortunate, like a sewer. A truffle lover will tell you it’s a heady scent. One that is indescribably earthy, lusty and even downright naughty. It’s part of the truffle head game. German scientists found that the truffles have a scent likened to a male pigs sex pheromone thus why sows can snuff them out. That is one sexy fungus. The broker must sell these highly perishable fungi quickly for they have a short shelf life of 4-5 days. They will go from firm to mush virtually before your eyes. Think of a cut flower. The clock starts ticking the moment it is cut from the root. Domestic truffles have the advantage of being fresher for U.S. chefs. Those transported from Europe may already have 3-4 days lost in travel time.
How to get in on it
So, if truffles are so expensive and hard to come by how does the average food loving schmuck get in on this? Take heart you can enjoy truffle flavor without emptying your wallet or robbing a truffle broker. You can affordably buy truffle butter and truffle oil in higher end grocery stores and specialty retailers for under $20. Perhaps a bit diluted in flavor but the flavor is there and it is unmistakable. Honestly I don’t love truffle olive oil as I find the two flavors can compete rather than compliment. If you can find truffles in grapeseed oil grab it. On occasion you may find tiny truffles that are difficult to shave sold in boxes of risotto rice at high end markets for upwards of $40. This could be year round based on which harvest the fungi is pulled from.
This piece also appears on my Tabelog page.