There are certain delicacies which either elevate other foods or have the power to hold its own. For example, a perfect piece of dark Godiva Chocolate or perhaps eating a succulent, divine Kobe steak. It is that experience of pure pleasure that particular foods are rated as exceptional.
Within the mushroom family there is one fungi who has rightfully earned to bask in that exceptionalism. Truffles are coveted among fine dining chefs for presentation in their dishes. This beautiful fungus is considered as one of the most expensive foods in the world with record-setting purchases in the tens of thousands of dollars for just a pound of truffles.
The truffle’s story is rooted in the countries of Italy and France. According to successful European cultivators, the truffles need to grow in a very particular environment made of red soil and rainy summers. During the 19th century, the truffle industry experienced amazing growth, despite epidemics of tree diseases and silkworms. Subsequently, due to the First World War during the 20thcentury, agriculture was heavily impacted and truffle growing production nearly ceased, sending prices sky high and only accessible to the wealthy or for special occasions. The decrease accessibility of truffles also built a black market of fraudulent luxury food because of the ease and low risk of getting caught, theft of producers’ groves (and their valued dogs) and the invasion of Chinese entering the market with lower-cost truffles.
With advances in agriculture to replicate the conditions necessary to grow the truffles, successful producers are cultivating farms in other countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and South Africa.
Truffles, subterranean in nature, grow underneath trees (either oak, haze and lime trees) attached by their roots, hidden just beneath the surface. Although raking with a specific tool, was at one point the option for truffle hunters, reliance on two animals to sniff out this elusive plant quickly took over. The hog was, however, unreliable because of their attraction to snack on truffles. Now many hunters have acquired and trained dogs whose snout is just as powerful as a hog and will locate and maintain the integrity of the truffle and its root structure. There are certain dogs who are valued highly due to being more susceptible to training and do well at truffle hunting (i.e., the Lagotto Romagnolo specifically bred in Italy for truffle hunting, the Springer Spaniel, the Standard Poodle, Beagles, Hounds, and the Belgian Malinois).
For many gourmet connoisseurs, the taste of a truffle is rather nutty. Chefs refer to it as possessing an Umani rich flavor that is savory or meatier, and depending on the region, will determine how deeply pungent it tastes.
There are two main types of truffles that consist of a range of tastes, smells, and appearances depending on the region:
1. With the white truffle (aka edible gold), considered the granddaddy of the truffles as the most expensive of the truffle family and the most difficult to cultivate, has been sold from $3000 to $5000 a pound. It grows in the Piedmont Region of Northern Italy and can only be harvested during the winter months. These truffles grow underground at the base of trees which is why specially trained dogs are used to locate their targets. White truffles are usually added to dishes as garnish in pasta, risottos, polentas, eggs, cheese, oils, creams, seasoned butter, and sauces.
2. The premier black truffle (aka Black Diamonds), mainly grows from August through December in the Piedmont region of Italy and is less expensive than its sister. There are actually three sub-categories:
- The Black Winter Truffle (found throughout Europe) is harvested from November to February
(in addition to Australia during its’ winter months of June through August) is heartier in flavor and many chefs pair it with beef, pork or game meats (i.e. wild boar or venison), cream-based sauces, pasta, eggs or potato dishes and ice cream
The Burgundy Truffle lighter in color than the darker winter truffle with a more nuanced aroma and the taste is described as a more earthy, hazelnut flavor. It grows in its namesake country of Burgundy, France, in addition to Spain, Eastern Europe, Sweden, and North Africa. It is usually shaved (with a tool named a truffle slicer/shaver) over pasta, risotto, potatoes, cheese dishes, cream soups or sauces, and truffle honey.
- Lastly, the Black Summer Truffle is on the other end of the spectrum in intensity to the Black Winter Truffle and grows in central and northern Italy and Spain. Harvested from May to September, it has a more delicate flavor than its cousins, akin to a mild, mushroom taste. Simplicity wins out when pairing this truffle with simple ingredients and uncomplicated presentations such as canapés and hors d’oeuvres, pasta, omelets or scrambled eggs, potatoes, and rice dishes.
Truffles have proven to be so versatile that chefs have created other food sources including Truffle-Infused Oils, Jams, Tapenades, Dips, and Extracts.
If you truly have an obsession with following the path of truffles from farm to table, various regions both in the U.S. and Internationally hold a number of events, tours and festivals showcasing the process from the hunt to being schooled on pairings of food and beverages. Below are the links to annual event websites which take place in both the United States and Europe. -AJ
Please share your thoughts of your own truffle experience in the comments section below or on Twitter!
Thank you to the following sites for content source on this fascinating world of truffles:
Hat Tip to the Pixabay photographers’ visual contributions:
Roy Buri – Hog at Work
Mrdidg – black truffles
lovepetforever – pasta dish
Serge Uzan – black truffles/napkin/fork
Pixelia – Dog and truffle
SanderSmit – pasta dish with white truffles
Zoli2003 – Scallops with truffle sauce