There have been gunfights, thefts, accusations of wide spread fraud, even mysterious disappearances of highly trained dogs. Inquiries are underway across France, and scientists have been called upon to help investigators to find the culprits.
All these investigations are conducted because of truffle – a highly fragrant tuber which many wealthy gastronomes consider the king of all fungi. In France, the truffle commerce has always been secretive. Truffle “hunters” try to avoid the taxman as much as drug dealers. Of course, black truffles found only in southeastern Var and Perigord regions of France are very expensive. They are rare (depending on weather condition, can become even rarer) and very time consuming to find. They grow underground (30cm) and must be “hunted.”
These days a kilo costs US $750 in French markets. By the time we get them in North America the price may be as high as $1,250 to $1,500, pending on store location, and fame of the establishment. Dean and Deluca in New York will not part with a kilogram of truffles for less than $1,400, and Fauchon in Paris is likely to charge $1,000. There are three types of truffles – black, grey, and white. Black truffles generally come from France, white from Piedmont and Umbria, Italy and grey can be found in North America. * see note below
Truffles grow on the roots of truffle oaks, often less than 30 cm below the surface. To date, no one has been able to cultivate truffles: they grow randomly in certain regions (44 – 46 degrees north latitude). The more truffle oak seedlings are planted, the more chances exist for harvesting some.
Since truffles cannot be seen, specially trained sows and dogs are employed to find the elusive tubers, Sows love to eat them and have a keen sense of smell, but because of their size, transportation tends to be cumbersome, also once they start digging, it is difficult to stop them to retrieve the truffle.
Many “hunters” prefer specially trained dogs that are easier to control. At least one French truffle hunter is trying to train a Vietnamese pot-bellied sow for practical reasons. Thus far, no success has been reported.
The size of the truffle varies considerably ranging from 10 grams (1/3 oz) to 100 grams (3 ½ oz). Large truffles cost more because they are rare. Truffle oaks thrive on soil rich in limestone, with good drainage.
Truffles are generally used in goose liver pates, in sauces, omelettes, scrambled eggs, compound butters, and baked in puff pastry.
Connoisseurs consider truffles as aphrodisiac, but there is no scientific evidence to this claim.
Once unearthed, truffle’s can be stored well packaged in a cool, damp place for months. They can also be frozen, although after thawing, texturally the quality becomes unacceptably soft and mushy.
Black truffles are highly aromatic, pungent and will even penetrate eggs stored next to them, changing their taste.
Italians consider the white truffle (tuber magnatum) to be superior in taste to tuber melonosporum (black truffle). White truffles are abundant in Alba and Monferrato, Piedmont, and around Parma, Modena and Bologna in Emilia Romagna. They have a penetrating, faintly garlicky aroma, with an intense flavour. Generally, aficionados serve it in paper thin slices on risottos, pastas, meats, egg dishes and cheese fondues. While white truffles may be eaten raw, black truffles must be cooked.
White truffles are more expensive than black. Other less-valued truffles are grey (tuber miesentericum) and tuber aestivum (red-grained black truffle). Connoisseurs consider grey truffles found in North America unworthy of their attention.
Imitation truffles consist of egg white, truffle juice and seasonings. Both their texture and taste have no resemblance to the real truffle, except for colour. Because black truffles are in such high demand, many fraudulent dealers buy inferior truffles like fungi, colour them and sell at exorbitant prices. Chinese truffles look like black French truffles, and some dealers are known to colour and sell them for authentic. Generally they buy the Chinese truffle for $30 a kilogram and after colouring sell it whatever the going market is.
True truffles must be purchased from reliable dealers with established reputations.
* NOTE: Email received 5/29/03: Hello, I'm an Italian chef and I want to say little bit about truffles. The most famous Italian truffles are the truffles of ALBA and the truffles of San Miniato. I haven't found any reference to the second!! For most info you can go to www.twtruffles.it, a large distributor of white truffles. Enjoy, Massimiliano
12/11/03 James... we currently grow and harvest the truffle species tuber melanosporum in North Carolina.. we have an orchard of 500 hazelnut trees inoculated with the spores of the perigord truffle..... so they are cultivated and we even do it in the sunny south. Bob Passarelli
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu