Truffles

April 14, 2012 | Other Goodies

Now I’m talking about the fungus truffles, not the rich, dark chocolates.  During my first quarter in culinary school, we had to pick a topic for a research paper.  I chose truffles because I didn’t know much about them (other than they were extremely expensive and taste absolutely incredible) and was very interested to learn more about them.  Below is my final research paper; I thought I would share it will all of you as it is filled with all kinds of great information for those of you who would like to know more about where they come from, how they’re harvested and why they’re so expensive.

Truffles
“The truffle is the diamond of the kitchen.”
– Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (17th Century French Epicurean)

Truffles are a subterranean edible fungus and a very close relative to the mushroom; they are basically underground versions of mushrooms – and are not to be confused with the chocolate truffle!  They grow only in symbiosis with tree and plant root systems, primarily near oak, chestnut, hazelnut and beech trees.  In this partnership, both the host and the truffle get something they need for survival; the host plant gets needed nutrients from the soil via the fungus, and the fungi gets the sugars it needs from the host.  Typically, truffles grow within one to six inches deep in the soil, but have been found to break the surface of the soil or grow as deep as one foot.  As they grow underground, they rely on animals eating them to spread their spores.  Even though they consist of 80% water, the “perfect truffle” should be hard to the touch, have a somewhat round shape and should give off relevant fragrances.  They can range from the size of a pea up to as large as an orange (and even larger, in some cases).  None of them are known to be poisonous, but only a select few have been recognized as delicacies.

Although their origin is somewhat unknown, truffles have been traced back through human history as early as Egyptian times where they were mainly cooked in goose fat.  They make their next appearance in history during ancient Grecian and Roman times where they were used for therapy and as an aphrodisiac.  During the middle ages, they were deemed the “Devil’s food,” and were abolished completely.  But during the 17th century, they were slowly introduced back into the culinary world, after French royalties began showing an interest in them.

The most well-known truffles are black or white.  The black truffles (also known as the French black “Périgord” truffle) have been harvested from the Périgord forests in Southwest France for centuries and are still one of its major exports.  The white truffles (also known as the Italian white “Piedmont” truffle) are harvested in the Piedmont region in Italy.  As black truffles are more abundant than white, they have a much lower price tag; their availability and price makes them more prevalent in culinary versus the white truffle.  White truffles can reach up to $2,000 per pound, while black truffles usually cost under $500 per pound.  In addition to the black and white truffle varieties, there are hundreds of other species ranging in colors and sizes.  Some of the other varieties are: the Oregon white, brown, or black truffle; the Burgundy, or Summer truffle; the Pecan (Texas) truffle; Chinese truffles; and Desert truffles (native to northern Africa and the Middle East).  All varieties share the requirement of symbiosis with tree and plant root systems and are all harvested in the same way.

Traditionally, truffles were harvested with female pigs because numerous varieties produce a scent which mimics the male pig sex hormone once the truffle is fully matured, naturally attracting the female pig to it.  The downside of using pigs to hunt for truffles is they are truffle-eaters themselves, which can cause an obvious obstacle in harvesting.  Throughout the years, truffle hunters have switched to using truffle dogs, which has proved to be a much more efficient way to harvest as they do not eat the truffles – and they are much easier to transport than pigs.  Even so, there are still some hunters today who prefer to use pigs (primarily in France).  If using pigs or dogs, the hunter can often point his animal to the right tree by looking around the base for holes dug by small animals attempting to dig up the truffles.  The small animals only go after fully matured truffles because once mature, the fungus omits an aroma which is highly attractive to animals; these are also the only type of truffle which can be found by truffle dogs and pigs, and the ones sought after by chefs.  If the truffles are harvested too early, they will have little to no taste, which is why utilizing animals is so crucial – only they can detect the proper aroma of a fully matured truffle.  Part of the challenge of harvesting is not only finding the truffles, but finding them during the short growing season which primarily consists of fall and winter.  The white truffle has the shortest growing season of all the truffles, hence, another reason for the elevated price.

The part of the truffle we eat is the fruiting body of the fungus, and it must be eaten shortly after being harvested.  When being incorporated into a dish, they can be sliced thin, shredded into little flecks, diced, or shaved.  Generally, they are used raw or cooked very gently.  It is best to add truffles to a somewhat mild dish to not overpower the delicateness (and cost) of the truffle with strong flavors; they are primarily added as a subtle flavor or accent.  They can be found in oils, pastries, ice creams, cocktails, Indian food, salads, pasta dishes, pâté de foie gras, cheeses, soups, sauces, cooked meats (like veal, chicken or fish), omelettes, and much more.

Storing is another challenge given the truffle’s limited lifespan; very precise storing requirements are needed to ensure the freshness of the truffle.  Here are a few recommendations for storing truffles: freeze them for up to two weeks in a freezer-proof glass jar, store them whole in bland oil, and (for white truffles) store in saw dust or sand covered by absorbent paper which is to be switched out every other day.  Some people store them in rice, but it is said that rice can draw out the flavor and aroma; eggs are known to do this too if they are stored in a fridge near the truffles.  If this should happen with eggs or rice, they can be enjoyed as an omelette or pilaf which will boast the taste of the truffle.

Being challenging to cultivate, high in aphrodisiacal properties, aromatic and flavorful, and a rarity, truffles are very desirable in the culinary world.  Simply, they are so expensive because of what they are and how they are harvested.

Citations:

Mehra, Neeti. “Magic truffles.” Liquid December 1, 2010. Culinary Arts Collection. Web. November18, 2011

“truffle.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. Encyclopedia.com November 27, 2011 http://wwww.encyclopedia.com

Author Name: Unknown. Article Title: Unknown. Website: www.natruffling.org/faq.htm. Publisher, Date of Publication: Unknown. Medium of Publication: Web. Date of Access: November 27, 2011

My favorite dish utilizing the truffle has to be Smith & Wollensky’s Truffled Macaroni ‘n Cheese… it’s truly a revelation and a “must try.”

2 responses to “Truffles”

  1. Holly Koontz says:

    I had a truffle risotto in Whistler once that I still remember fondly. MMMMMM!

  2. Charcuterie says:

    […] cured and smoked meats, I had a lot of fun researching this subject.  I thought, like my Truffles research paper, I would share it with all of you as it is packed full of interesting information. […]

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