Truffles
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Truffles (“Tartufo” in Italian), are the fruiting portion of any number of ectomycorrhizal fungi, meaning fungi (mushrooms). Truffles have no root system but exist symbiotically with trees, (typically oaks, but also chestnut, elms, willows, hazel, poplar, and beech) where their reproductive spores can be consumed and distributed by fungi eating animals (fungivores) like hogs.

Truffles, one of the most expensive produce items, have been a desirable food and ingredient since at least 2500 BC when they were prized by the Amorites in Mesopotamia and later used by the Romans (cooked with honey). Though their popularity waned during the Middle Ages when they were considered poisonous, consumers’ taste for Truffles ultimately recovered in the Renaissance where they were served at the court dinners of King Francis I of France, even though cooking at that time was heavily influenced by spices of the “Oriental Trade.”

In the 1600’s when French cuisine reverted to native flavors, demand for Truffles increased until they were widely sought-after in the Parisian Markets of the 1780’s, according to Brillat-Savarin, “by the Great Nobles and kept women.”

Though Truffles have been a sought after food item since at least the third century BC, until recently they were only procured by the foraging of tight-lipped peasants and their sows. Because they follow the trees, the Truffle’s habitat has been fairly limited (Northern Italy, Southern France, Croatia etc.) and humans have had a hard time discovering how to domesticate them which are the factors that lead to the scarcity and the exorbitant prices.

As a chef and a consumer you would do better to describe your Truffles by their scientific names to make sure that you are getting your money’s worth. This goes doubly when dealing with other varieties of Truffle and near-Truffle substitutes which have become available to the shopper as the money involved has mounted.

In general, if a Truffle is one of the leading varieties listed, the purveyor will plainly announce the fact. Frequently, they will also list the genus and species of the proud Truffles contained therein on the ingredients label.

The traditional way to experience a White Alba Truffle is over eggs, which have a reputation for enhancing the Truffle’s natural earthy tang. Truffled Scrambled Eggs is one way to prepare them.

Cultivation

Man only began cultivating Truffles, with crude, acorn-strewing methods, in 1808 when Joseph Talon from Apt in Southern France collected acorns from beneath truffle harboring oak trees and sowed them elsewhere. When they grew, the oak trees produced Truffles and “Trufficulture” in its earliest stages. However, it was limited to essentially transplanting oak trees and waiting ages for them to grow.

Today, the French and Italians are pioneering new farming techniques (including inoculating the tree roots with Tuber Melanosporum) and are closing in on creating a wild taste in a field grown Truffle. 80% of French production comes from these new dedicated Truffièrs though production volume and quality has not yet eclipsed the peaks of 1900. In fact, at 30 tons, they are just about 25% of amounts harvested at the heights. More perfectly, emulating the Terroir of the Périgord region may be the key to a future equivalency between the two.

More than half of the Truffle varieties hail from Europe, but only 4 or 5 types stir the blood. Lesser Truffles, with less culinary appeal, also grow wild in places like China, Africa, Oregon and New Zealand where they thrive in limestone soils in temperate, moist climates with warm, dry summers but cool wet winters.

Driven by the strong, global demand, farmers in these areas, ones with sweet limestone soils and dry hot weather that support Truffle growth, are inducing the growth of the two great truffles, Black Perigord Truffles and White Italian Truffles with the latest Trufficulture and are bringing product to market. Truffles are currently cultivated in the Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US.  In some of these markets Trufficulture is very recent. In fact, the first Black Périgord Truffles from New Zealand were harvested as recently as 1993. Tasmania’s first crop hit stores in 1999. Only time will tell if these newer growers will key in on the perfect flavor of the two European greats.

Production

Production by this method peaked at the turn of the last century when 190,000 acres of land were devoted to “Champs Truffiers” or “Truffières,” meaning “Truffle Fields” in French. With the World Wars and Industrialization, many of the oak forests/fields were left to lie fallow and the knowledge of trufficulture was lost, and those original 18th century trees became unproductive. The average productive life of a Truffle producing tree is only 30 years.  With the decrease in production, came a rise in prices, until Truffles were no longer in common use and became a rarified delicacy.

Varieties

The 4 to 5 most prized Truffle species, the ones labeled the “Diamonds of the Kitchen” by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and prized by classic European cuisines like French, Tuscan, Spanish, and Greek, are found in the scientific genus Tuber (from the Latin meaning bump) and can be very pricy. Check the Internet for the prices of the two greats: White Italian Truffles and Black Périgord Truffles. Prices for fresh White Italian Truffles range from $225 to $600 an ounce, depending on the vendor, season and the harvest. Fresh Black Périgord Truffles will vary from $85 to $120 or more an ounce. Generally, prices for White Italian Truffles are roughly 4 times as much as the prices for the more plentiful Black Périgord Truffle. Pricing notwithstanding, there are camps willing to fight over which of the two, black or white, is actually the most amazing Truffle.

The next lower tier of Truffles, the nobility, are decent, but without the remarkable aroma and flavor of the royalty. And there is not much of a price break either, fresh Black Burgundy Truffles start at $30 to $60 an ounce, and even packed in oil or salted-brine where you are not paying exclusively for the Truffle, they can be $12 an ounce. Summer Black Truffles, Brumale Truffles and Bianchetto Truffles can be priced similarly.

The next lower tier of Truffles, which should be considered more like common Mushrooms includes:  Chinese Truffles, Oregon White Truffles, Oregon Black Truffles, and Pecan Truffles

There are also a variety of near-Truffles such as the Desert Truffles and Bohemian Truffles.

Purchasing

Be careful when you are shopping for Truffles because the naming conventions, settled on generations ago, promote confusion and obfuscation. Most Truffles are described on the packaging as coming from a location and/or by their season and color. This does not easily allow you to determine which particular species you are working with and paying through the nose for.

The first rule of buying and consuming fine fresh Truffles, like the Black Perigord Truffle or the Italian White Truffle, is that they have to be the right species or they are not worth the price. Because these are European variants, you will likely be dealing with an online merchant so only buy these fresh Truffles from a trusted purveyor. There are no discounted Truffles. If you see some, be wary. 

Be extra careful if being asked to fork over a fortune for Black Winter Truffles, Black Truffles and White Truffles, at the local stores. These appellations are confusingly non-specific marketing terms with very loose definitions. The less scrupulous manufacturers push the envelope of confusion and sell lesser Truffles for higher prices using these marketing names. The operative word for these makers is “confusion” but not “Fraud” because there is no definition for these terms. That said, “Caveat Emptor,” let the buyer beware when paying high Truffle prices.   CBS had an interesting story on 60 Minutes on Truffles and the Truffle Trade in January 2011. The link goes to the CBS site. 

Because many varieties look so similar, especially to the uninitiated, more dastardly merchants attempt to perpetrate “Truffle Fraud” by mislabeling inferior Truffles that have been soaked in Truffle juice (to enhance aroma) as their more expensive cousins. Inexpensive Chinese Truffles or Spanish Black Truffles are used most often to resemble Black Périgord Truffles, while lesser white Truffles attempt to masquerade as pricy Italian White Truffles.

The biggest deterrent to fraud is testing so if you are in doubt patronize reputable retailers who play by the rules and buy from regulated markets. In France, the government analyses Truffles for legitimacy.  In the Alba Market, the Fiera del Tartufo, each Truffle is analyzed for quality and type.

In France, Truffles are sorted and graded according to their size and looks, with Extra Grade (1 ounce or more, ping pong-ball-sized with very slight defects) being the highest category. In descending order the remaining grades are Category 1, Category 2 and Unclassified but if purchasing fresh Truffles don’t get hung up on their appearance. They grow underground and may have bumps and knobs or be an odd shape where they grew around an obstruction. Sometimes the most perfectly round truffles are the ones that were picked before they were ripe and thus will not have reached their full potential fragrance. Focus on their firmness and the “sniff test.” Do they have a strong truffle aroma? If the fresh Truffles that you are considering have a weak aroma, or worse smell like gasoline, pass them up. They are either old or an inferior variety.

The second rule is that they need to be consumed as quickly as possible once they are out of the soil at the height of their season. Typically, they are best within a few days, though refrigeration can extend the time period a while (up to 10 days). When purchasing Truffles, ask if they are fresh. Were they picked within the last few days? Does the math indicate that they were picked at the height of the season?

After meeting the other qualifications, Truffles that are 1 oz. (30g) (Extra Grade) to 1.5 oz. (43 g) are best for the kitchen, as a single portion is typically 1 oz. (30 g). Smaller Truffles can be hard to handle and work with. Larger Truffles ultimately have proportionally less surface area (where the desirable aromatic  gasses are most concentrated).

If you, want more than just a dining experience, one interesting alternative that appeals to us is to plan a French vacation in the winter at the height of the Truffle season. Sampling the best product, at its freshest, and in its own environment is on the bucket list.

Modern air-freight being what it is, it is possible to enjoy fresh Truffles almost anywhere in the world, at a price. If you, like most of us, are unwilling to pay the full price other Truffle purchasing options include buying them in products, like Truffle OilTruffle Butter, or Truffle Cheese.

You can also buy Truffles preserved in jars or cans. These are typically packed in a light brine or oil and can have good flavor but won’t be the equal of the real thing. Think canned peaches versus a fresh-picked peach off the tree.  This is a product where producers love to “confuse” to pad their profits. Make sure to read the ingredient label, if it doesn’t specify the type of Truffle, assume the worst and make you financial decisions accordingly. Chinese Truffles are just fine, at the proper price.

Storage

Truffles remain fresh for a very short time. Unless you watched it harvested, you really don’t know how old your truffle is when you purchase it. So the best process is to act as though time is fleeting when you are dealing with fresh Truffles.

Keep them as fresh as possible before use by wrapping your Truffles individually in paper towels, and putting them in the refrigerator loosely-packed (for circulation) in an airtight container. If you have mapped your refrigerator, you should keep your Truffles away from the coldest spots. If you want to be scrupulous, you can change the paper towel wrapping daily. So wrapped, they will be good for two to three days before which time you should use them.  If the Truffles get soft, they are nearing the end of their useful life and should be used, right away.

Before use, and only when you are ready to use them, clean your Truffles with a Mushroom Brush to remove clinging dirt and grime.

If you won’t be able to use your Truffles in 2 to 3 days, you should freeze them. Prepare them for freezing by cleaning them with a Mushroom Brush, and wrapping them tightly in aluminum foil, before freezing them in an airtight container. The Truffles should not be in the freezer more than a few months.

Culinary Uses

How the delicate Truffle is used depends on the type of Truffle on hand. Italian White Truffles are generally used and served raw. They can be shaved over salads or cooked dishes.  They can also be used, similar to Larding, under the skins of Roasting Meats.

Alone and raw Black Périgord Truffles (also Burgundy Truffles or Summer Black Truffles) do not taste like much more than great raw Mushrooms. Most of the culinary impact is in their Umami aroma (the product of the 30 internal gasses) which is not maximized by chewing. Cooking heat is needed to release them the gasses as flavors that the palate can appreciate. Shaving or Grating Black Perigord Truffles over a cooked dish allows the moderate amount of retained heat to begin releasing the Truffle’s desirable gasses as flavor. Subjecting them to Low Heat accomplishes the same thing since the Truffles’ perfume is released as soon as they are warmed through but inflicting too much heat will not improve the flavor.

Because of their high prices, fresh Truffles are used sparingly. In classical kitchens Truffles were peeled before use, but today, to maximize their yield, most restaurants just brush the Truffle with a Mushroom Brush before shaving, Mincing or Dicing them for use as an ingredient. They go well with dishes that have abundant natural Fat, like a Sauce Suprême or a Filet Mignon.

Other uses might be as a flavoring agent. Consider leaving a fresh Black Perigord Truffle in a basket of Eggs overnight so that they can absorb the Truffle perfume and leave the actual Truffle for lunch or dinner. Be sure that the eggs are dry and clean and mop up any moisture if it appears. A similar process can be applied to Arborio Rice or other starches.

Truffle Oil, Truffle Cheese, Truffle Paste or Truffle Butter are also good (and more economical) ways to store and experience the flavor of Truffles because the Truffles’ naturally occurring and flavorful gasses are drawn to and cling to the Fats in these products. A newer development coming into its own is Truffle Vodka, which is then added to cooking dishes, where the alcohol cooks off but the Truffle flavor remains.

Portion Size

Allow 1/2-1 T of Truffles per person.

Pairings

Black Truffles

Tarragon, Cauliflower, Mushrooms, Morel Mushrooms, Potatoes, Bacon, Beef, Chicken, Eggs, Foie Gras, Rabbit, Scallops, Shellfish, Stocks, Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Pasta

White Truffles

Thyme, Salt, Artichokes, Onions, Potatoes, Butter, Cheese, Parmesan Cheese, Milk, Eggs, Cream, Pork, Prosciutto, Pasta, Risotto, Pears, Fish, Pasta

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Yes

Low Calorie

Yes