Unearthing the Truffle: A Guide Through Truffle 101

At many restaurant tables, it seems as if every plate of food is getting the truffle treatment. From Truffled Fries to outlandish ideas like White Truffle Ice Cream, this subterranean mushroom has been cropping up on menus everywhere. Truffles are highly prized in the culinary world, quietly growing under a camouflage of dirt, they are truly a chef's diamonds in the rough. Their value comes not only from what they contribute to a dish, but also from the painstaking method by which they are gathered.

For years, no standardized method for farming truffles existed, although despite noble efforts, this fungus had resisted all attempts of domestication. It was not until the early Nineteenth Century that Frenchman, Joseph Talon, preformed an experiment on truffle cultivation. Talon gathered acorns from oak trees that were known for producing truffles at their roots, and planted them in moist soil. After years of evolving underground, truffles were found growing under Talon's oak trees, and the experiment was deemed a success. Since then, truffle growers have taken root in countries across the world, with very prosperous regions in Australia and New Zealand.

Truffles thrive off the roots of trees, most commonly on oaks, but the relationship between the two is symbiotic. The filaments of the truffle fungus infest a tree's root system and the truffle's roots are able to more effectively gather nutrients, thus aiding in a tree's growth. While growers have been able to domesticate the elusive truffle, the harvesting of this fungus has remained constant since the days of old. A truffle "orchard" is invisible, the precious crop hiding about six inches deep in the earth.

 In order to gather a truffle crop, animals with a highly developed sense of smell are needed to find this musty treasure. Traditionally, trained hogs were used to find truffles since they have an inherent ability to pick up the fungus’ scent from under the earth. Truffles are a pig's favorite treat, and these hogs will gobble up an expensive lump as quickly as it can locate the hiding mushroom. Lately, growers have trained dogs for truffle harvesting since they are easier to control from consuming their profits. Dogs have proved to be extraordinary truffle hunters, and even made mainstream news when an Italian mutt named Rocco was credited to finding a 3.3 pound white truffle that auctioned for $330,000.

The truffle seasons occur year-round, the availability dependant on the variety. During the winter months, the Black Winter Truffle is available starting in November and extends to springtime around April, but these truffles reach their peak at the start of the year. Just as the Winter Black Truffle season is ending, the Black Summer Truffle season is beginning. It runs from May until September. The most coveted White Alba Truffle begins its season in September and continues until the New Year.

As mentioned before, in the kitchen, the truffle is a star. Black and white truffles are the two most common varieties sold. While the color difference is obvious for both these fungi, there are evident flavor and aroma differences as well. The black truffle tends to be larger in size, and is predominantly found in the Perigord region of France. The flavor of black truffles reflect the earth from which they are gathered. Musty, with a potent funk-of-the-earth taste, the black truffle shines best when cooked into sauces and creams, where the aromas can be properly released. White truffles are the most highly prized truffle variety, and can sell for up to $10,000 per pound. They are usually smaller than black truffles and are best served raw. The highest quality white truffles are harvested from the Piedmont region of Italy. Lumps of white truffles contain trapped gas that is released when shaved or sliced. The white truffle's garlicky taste can be attributed to this aromatic gas trapped within its body.  This fragrant vapor will add a new flavor dimension to any dish.

For those not willing to shell out a few grand for a pound of truffles, there are alternative ways to experience one of the kitchen's most high-brow ingredients, although many will argue it does not come close to tasting the real thing.

Truffle oil is infused with the flavor and aroma of the truffle fungus by allowing pieces of truffle to marinate in a bottle of oil. While truffle oil is sold at a fraction of the cost of real truffles, it can be pricey depending on the quality. Some producers of truffle oil have found a way to infuse oil with the organic compound, 2,4-Dithiapentane, which imparts the earthy flavor of a truffle without ever using the real thing. Slap a "Truffle Oil" label on this faux oil, and producers can watch the profits roll in. Instead of falling for this gourmet ruse, truffle oil can be made at home by infusing extra-virgin olive oil with pieces of truffle shavings or dried truffles in a sterile jar. After storing the truffled oil in a cool place for over a week, making sure to shake it up daily, the oil will be fragrant and ready for use. This will extend the life of a truffle since the oil is good for up to a month when refrigerated.

Another way to experience the rich, earthy flavor of a truffle without breaking the bank is through Truffled Cheeses. The Italian truffle cheese, Sottocenere, derives its name from the truffle oil-rubbed ash rind that encases the truffled dotted white cheese. The strong truffle flavor of Sottocenere pairs well with a glass of mild champagne. For those looking for a delicious soft cheese, Cypress Grove makes a Californian artisanal goat cheese inoculated with grated black truffle called Truffle Tremor. Italian Boschetto al Tartufo cheese is made with both cow and sheep milk, and can be found with both white and black truffles. The pungent scent and earth funk flavor of truffles works well with many different cheeses like Sardinian Pecorino and even American Cheddar.

More recently, gourmet markets have started to carry Truffled Sea Salt, which is simply high quality sea salt mixed with pieces of black or white truffles. This truffle variation can be used  to enhance in everyday foods like popcorn, or as a crust on top of meat for a fancy homemade dinner. Jars range in prices from $13 upwards to over $100.

Other products like Truffled Tapenade, Truffle Butter, and even Truffle Honey can be found at many gourmet foods stores. There is even an Italian-made Farina al Tartufo, truffle flour made with white truffles that is great to use to add an interesting twist to pasta, bread, and pizza dough.

When cooking with fresh truffle it is important to remember that the flavor and scent is so intense that a just a little will drastically change a dish. When serving delicate white truffles, a truffle mandolin is a necessary tool. The best truffle mandolins are usually stainless steel, and can shave the truffle paper thin to maximize the truffle flavor and reveal the beautiful inner marbling of the fungus.  Grating is another method of preparation that utilizes the truffle to the fullest. Using a high quality hand grater, like a Microplane, truffles can be finely processed into a delicious cream sauce or tossed in pasta for a satisfying dinner.

One rule of thumb to follow when cooking with truffles is that, whether black or white, truffles love fat. Their raw, earthy flavor is the perfect complement to cream, butter, cheese, and foie gras. Some may even pick out a dark chocolate quality when tasting an unadorned black truffle. One of the purest truffle preparations is Truffle-Scented Eggs. Simply take a fresh truffle and gently place it in a jar with raw eggs still in their shells. Seal the jar air tight and place in the refrigerator for two to three days. During this air “marinating” process something magical happens, the pungent truffle scent will permeate the shells of the eggs and the eggs will absorb the earthy characteristic of the truffle. A luxurious breakfast of truffled eggs can be made with grated truffles to finish the dish. This same process can be applied to rice, which is the best material in which to store fresh truffles. Rice absorbs moisture and will help extend the life of a truffle, although fresh truffles should be ideally used the same day of purchase, but definitely within three days after purchase; any longer and the truffle will lose its distinctive aroma.

At the dinner table, the truffle is without question a decadent ingredient. It is expensive and rare, characteristics that perhaps have contributed to its categorization as an aphrodisiac. There is nothing more indulgent and sexy than consuming something worth its weight in gold. One flavorful bite of a freshly sliced Italian truffle will have your stomach doing the "Truffle Shuffle"!

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