Truffles, one of the world’s most expensive natural foods, are actually subterranean mushrooms, though they look more like gnarled potatoes. Dubbed “diamonds of the kitchen,” in 2010, a truffle weighing just over three pounds—one of the largest found in decades—sold at auction for $330,000 USD. Typically, however, even the most desirable truffles sell for about $6,000 USD per pound, based on 2013 pricing. But there is more to luxury than price; and that is certainly the case with truffles, where the elusive delicacy intertwines the lives of trees and flies and pigs and dogs and, of course, man.
There are scores of species of truffles, but it is the genus Tuber that is the most prized as food. The word “truffle” seems to have derived from the Latin “tuber,” meaning “swelling” or “lump”—the same derivation that led to the word “tumor.” Eventually, “tuber” became “tufer,” and, in turn, gave rise to variations in several European languages: “trufa” in Spanish; “truffe” in French; and “trøffel” in Danish, for example.
One of the primary roles of fungi in any given ecosystem is to decompose organic materials. The fungi that manifest into truffles form symbiotic relationships with the roots of certain trees, namely beech, oak, pine, hazel, poplar, and hornbeam, and thrive between the leaf litter and well-drained, dry, limestone and other calcareous soils that are either neutral or alkaline. As such, the environments best suited for the presence of truffles are specific and limited.
Of the edible truffles, two are most highly esteemed: the “white truffle” of Italy; and the “black truffle” of France. The “white truffle,” or “Alba madonna” (Tuber magnatum) hails from the countryside around the Italian cities of Alba and Asti, as well as from the Langhe and Montferrat areas of the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The “Alba madonna” is also found in the Molise region, located alongside the Abruzzo region, of southern Italy, and in the hills around San Miniato in the Tuscan region. White truffles mature in the autumn, and for the truffles market in Alba, the “Fiera del Tartufo” (Truffle Fair), October and November are its busiest months. Pale-cream in color, or brown with white marbling, Tuber magnatum is the world’s most expensive and desirable truffle. Though the largest white truffles are about the size of a man’s fist, truffles of that size are extremely rare; most are much smaller, about the size of a walnut or golf ball.
The Italian peninsula is home to other edible white truffles—Tuber magnatum pico of the northern and central regions, as well as Tuber borchii, a whitish truffle from the regions of Tuscany, Romagna, Umbria, the Marche, and Molise—but none of them are as aromatic as Tuber magnatum of Piedmont.
France’s Périgord region is home to the “black truffle” (Tuber melanosporum), also called “black Périgord truffle.” Capable of attaining a size of about two inches in diameter and about five ounces in weight, black truffles grow symbiotically with oak and hazel trees—especially those of upper Provence, Périgord, and Lalbenque in Quercy—and are harvested from the late autumn to the winter, January being the month when the mushroom attains its most pronounced aroma. While France, Spain, and Italy are most known for black truffles, large quantities have recently been found in Serbia. And the prized mushroom is known to grow as far away as Tazmania. At Richerenches in Vaucluse, France’s largest truffles market, black truffles were reportedly sold for $3,000 USD per pound in 2013.
One of the primary reasons for the market prices of truffles is dwindling supplies in the face of ever-increasing demand: 2,200 tons were reportedly harvested in 1890; 300 tons in 1914; and a meager 25 to 150 tons were harvested annually during the first decade of the 21st century. Another reason for the exorbitant prices for truffles is the elusive nature of the delicacy. The first written accounts of truffles occur about 4,000 years ago in the inscriptions of the Sumerians, where they describe the eating habits of their enemies, the Amorites, who occupied lands that are today a part of Syria. In classical times, as evidenced by the writings of Greek historian Plutarch, it was believed that truffles were the result of a convergence of lightning, warmth, and water in the soil. And Juvenal, the Roman poet whose works date from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, believed that truffles originated from thunder and rain. The great Cicero declared truffles the “children of the earth,” presumably because they do not derive from seeds. By 1808, however, man had uncovered a method of cultivating truffles: Joseph Talon, from Apt in southern France, drawing upon the knowledge that truffles tended to grow amongst the roots of certain trees, entertained the idea of sowing acorns collected at the base of specific oak trees that had been known to host truffles. And his hunch was, apparently, a good one because years later the trees that grew from those collected acorns also served as hosts to truffles. The experiment was again repeated in 1847 when Auguste Rousseau of Vaucluse, located in southeastern France, planted 17 acres with acorns collected from the foot of truffle-hosting oaks. And the oaks that grew from those acorns also served as hosts to truffles—so much so that Rousseau received a prize at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris. The Talon-Rousseau approach to cultivating truffles was especially successful in southern France, where the sweet limestone soils and dry weather enable the growth of truffles. Then, in the late 19th century, when many of Europe’s vineyards were destroyed by the phylloxera epidemic, and the continent’s silkworms also succumbed to an epidemic, former vineyards and fields of mulberry trees (the food source of silkworms) were converted into “trufficulture” farms, and truffle production reached an all-time high. By the 20th century, however, with industrialization, many farmers abandoned their lives of agriculture for urban existences, leaving truffle fields to return to wilderness. Then, with the Great Wars, much of Europe’s male population died, leaving few hands available for trufficulture. And since the “fertile years” of the average truffle-hosting tree is 30 years, by the 1940s, most of the trees planted in the late 19th century had stopped being productive. Consequently, with the shortage of truffles and an increased demand for the delicacy, prices skyrocketed. Since the last decades of the 20th century, there have been efforts to mass produce truffles by planting truffle groves (truffiere) per the methods uncovered by Talon and Rousseau. There have also been marginally successful attempts to inoculate seedlings with truffle spores. Then once the saplings are established, they are transplanted into appropriate soil environments. Trees generally require at least seven years before the first truffles appear around their root systems. Once truffle production begins, however, a farmer can expect to collect truffles in the areas where they were previously collected for the next 15 to 30 years. In 1993, Gisborne, New Zealand earned the distinction of being the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to produce “black truffles.” But some long-time farmers resist such attempts for fear that increased production would result in lower prices. And part of the truffle’s mystique is its price. As was said by French lawyer and epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), “… as one of the great values of truffles is their dearness, perhaps they would be less highly esteemed if they were cheaper.” Also, there have been attempts to cultivate truffles on a commercial scale in other countries, but rarely do the climatic and geographical conditions favor such endeavors. So, for the moment, truffles remain elusive, expensive, and enticing.
[ Besides Italy, “white truffles” can also be found in Croatia and in the Drôme region of France. “Black truffles,” in addition to France, which accounts for approximately 45% or the world’s production, can also be found in Spain, Italy, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Australian states of Tasmania and Western Australia. There are also other—albeit less highly regarded—edible truffles that are found in other regions of the world: black “summer truffles” and “burgundy truffles,” members of the Tuber aestivum/uncinatum species, are found throughout Europe, the former harvested in the summer, and the latter in the in the fall; the “pecan truffle,” Tuber lyonii, which is found in the vicinity of pecan trees in the southern United States (For years, farmers would find them and discard them, considering them to be a nuisance. Based on 2013 pricing, however, they are being sold at approximately $100 per pound and are being served by gourmet restaurants in the United States); and the “Oregon white truffles,” Tuber oregonense and Tuber gibbosum. There are also other truffle-like species of underground mushrooms, the most culinarily notable being the “desert truffles” of Africa and the Middle East—“black kame” (Terfezia bouderi) and “brown kame” (Terfezia claveryi). And there is the “Bohemian truffle,” which is traditionally eaten in parts of Germany. Then, of course, there are the poisonous varieties, which are, at all costs, to be avoided by gentlemen. ]
If cultivating truffles is interesting, then harvesting them is exciting. Dogs and female pigs are used to sniff out and unearth truffles. Mature truffles produce a compound that, to a female pig, smells akin to androstenol, the sex pheromone found in boars’ saliva—a musk-like smell to which the sow
is acutely attracted. Unless pigs are nozzled, however, they tend to not only devour the precious truffles before the harvester can secure them, but also to damage the truffle-producing spores in the process. Consequently, in some countries such as Italy, the use of truffle pigs is discouraged or prohibited. Enter: man’s best friend, the dog. The Lagotto Romagnolo (“lake dog from Romagna”), a breed of dog from the Romagna sub-region of Italy that is traditionally used as a retriever, is the only dog officially recognized for its truffle-hunting capabilities. But any dog can be trained to hunt for truffles. And because trained dogs tend to be more obedient and less ravenous than pigs, dogs are generally more eager to relinquish their truffle-finds to their masters—especially if they know they will be rewarded with a substitute treat or some display of affection. It is also said that truffle flies gather at the base of host-trees that host truffles. And some farmers, as guided by the truffle flies (Suillia flies), which tend to lay their eggs on the ground directly above or in the vicinity of truffles, dig for the truffles themselves. (But since the best time to harvest a truffle is determined by its smell, animals that rely on sniffing out truffles are regarded as the best method for finding truffles at their optimum harvest time). Also, animals such as squirrels, chipmunks, and other rodents that eat truffles, will also burrow into the ground in search of them. (And when they find them, they bring them to the surface and devour them, thereby spreading the spores and helping to ensure the growth of the fungus). Farmers, therefore, look for evidence of burrowing as an indication of the presence of truffles. And since truffles tend to appear in spots where they appeared the year before, farmers are keen to discreetly mark those spots so as to find new truffles in the future. Once there is a clear indication that a truffle has been located, it is carefully unearthed using hand-tools such as a small hand-rake, a trowel, and a hand-broom—similar to the way an archaeologist on a dig removes precious artifacts from the soil. Once exposed, the truffle is carefully lifted from the ground. Typically, truffles are located a few inches below the surface-soil. And on rare occasions, they appear above-ground.
Contrary to popular belief, washing a truffle clean with water does not harm it—after all, they grow underground, exposed to the elements. The truffle is held by the hand under cool, running water, and gently, with a soft-bristled brush, scrubbed clean of soil. Once the soil has been removed, the truffle is pat-dried with paper towel and stored properly—if not used immediately. (See below).
The pungent aroma of a mature truffle is said to be reminiscent of musk mixed with nuts mixed with ozone. In layman’s terms, it smells somewhat earthy and nutty, but with overtones of onions and garlic. Its flavor is best described by its aroma, and vice versa; it tastes as it smells, and it smells like it tastes. Even a small white truffle possesses enough aroma to perfume an entire apartment—sometimes to the point where its inhabitants may be inclined to temporarily seek shelter elsewhere. And the more fragrant a truffle, the more flavorful. But, alas, the flavor and aroma of truffles are as fleeting as they are intense. It is best, therefore, to use them shortly after they are harvested. But in the cases where they must be transported to market, some experts store them in the refrigerator in a glass container filled with uncooked rice until they can be delivered. And in keeping with the truffle’s tendency to exist symbiotically, not only does the rice help preserve the truffle, it also absorbs some of aroma and flavor of the mushroom, which are then released when subsequently cooked. (Fresh eggs stored with truffles also absorb, through the shell, the aroma and flavor of truffles, thereby enhancing the eggs when cooked).
It was once the custom to peel truffles, but that practice has long been abandoned as wasteful and unnecessary. Every part of the delicacy should be enjoyed. So today, after being properly cleaned, truffles are sliced into paper-thin slices with specially designed truffle slicers. Every gentleman’s kitchen should be equipped with such a device—made of sterling silver or some other luxurious material, of course.
Traditionally, because of the intense—but fleeting—flavor and aroma of truffles, it is rarely subjected to cooking. Typically, it is ceremoniously brought to the table and sliced or grated directly onto the dish it is to enhance. But that it not always the case: Truffle slices are oftentimes placed under the skin of chicken prior to roasting, thereby imparting its unique flavor and aroma into the bird before and during the roasting process. And truffle slices are always inserted into the center of traditional pâté de foie gras. With most other foods, however, such as sauces, fish stocks, and creams; omelettes; risotto and pasta; soufflés; and chicken and veal, for example, the delicious mushroom is added at the end of the cooking process or shaved onto the cooked dish immediately before presentation.
Truffles may be stored for a few days without losing all their flavor and aroma. Many chefs prefer to wrap the mushroom in dry paper towel, place the wrapped mushroom into an airtight container, then store in a refrigerator. Each day, the paper towel is replaced by a fresh, dry sheet Alternatively, truffles may be frozen in an air-tight glass container for approximately two weeks. They may also be preserved, whole, in a tasteless oil, which will take on the flavor of the truffle and can be used to enhance many dishes.