What are truffles?
On first sight truffles seem like warty, misshapen potatoes. Don’t be fooled! Truffles are among the most expensive of the world’s natural foods and the most valuable of the fungus family. Tracing a culinary path from ancient Roman and Greek cooking, these diamonds of the gourmet world have been passed on from generation to generation, country to country as delicacies, aphrodisiacs and medicine.
Describing the taste isn’t easy because everyone has their own experience of the delicacy. Connoisseurs put it down to a combination of musk, nuts and the ozone all wrapped to create an irreplaceable flavor worth sampling. So prized are they for their unique earthy flavor, the cost of truffles can exceed £1,500. In fact recently, a Los Angeles restaurateur bought a kilogram of rare Italian white truffles for over £20,000.
Who grows them
Truffles grow in forested areas of Europe, North Africa, Middle East and North America. It is however the French black truffle and the Italian white truffle that are most famed for their distinctive and heady tang. It is rare to find people growing them for personal use because they are pretty temperamental and the success rate may fall below 50%.
Collecting them requires experience and training. New harvesters will often use a rake to gather the truffles. Unfortunately this means that both mature and immature truffles are collected reducing the quality of the harvest. A more efficient way is to use either trained dogs or hogs to trace the aroma of fully matures aroma. If given a choice, most harvesters prefer dogs because unlike hogs they do not eat the truffles when they come across them.
Kinds of truffles
There are two main kinds of truffles; the black truffle and the white truffle. The white truffle is the more expensive of the two costing about £600 – £1,200 a kilogram in a specialty shop. This is because it is rarer, more perishable and its aroma diminishes faster after harvest. The price range is between. The Piedmont truffle found in Piedmont district is famed for its distinct pepper edge.
The black truffle has a black exterior and an off burgundy interior. It is less expensive than the white one, up to almost a fifth of the price. It is found in many areas including Oregon, USA. The French black truffle, also known as the perigord truffle, is well known for its garlicky flavor.
Cooking with truffles
If you are lucky enough to get fresh truffles, use the same day or no longer than three days later if you want to maintain that earthy flavor. If you’re like the rest of us and preserved is what you got, use the truffles within one week after opening. Generally an 8 – 10 gram serving size is enough for one person. Too many truffles and the flavor will overpower the senses and soon you’ll have people wrinkling noses instead of licking lips. Truffles work with fat which is why they are often paired with cheese, butter and cream. Combined with bland food such as pasta, rice and potatoes, your meal is sure to be an exhilarating experience.
Under no circumstances should you cook white truffles as they loose their flavor quite quickly. Instead serve them raw shaved over buttered pasts, salads or fried eggs. You can also blend finely cut pieces into high quality butter. Black truffles can however stand a little heat (note the ‘little’ as they retain their essence. Use it as an ingredient when making pâté de foie gras or sauté paper thin slices and insert into meats or under skin of roasted fowl.
Fresh truffles can be purchased in advance from local specialty stores or luxury food vendors within your area. However, be sure to ask where their truffles are from, sometimes the higher quality truffles are replaced with ones from other regions that do not quite have the same flavor. If the costs are a little bit high try out olive oil infused with truffles or truffle salt. These will serve as a kind of replacement for the earthy flavor, but I must warn you. Its just not the same.
Though best used fresh, sometimes you have to keep some for later – they did cost you a leg. Store your precious truffles in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Make sure it’s not plastic though as they will get moldy, smelly and slimy. You can freeze them in a glass jar for several months. Just make sure they are in a tightly sealed container because the strong aroma may soak into the other foods in the fridge.