A truffle is a fungus or mushroom of the genus Tuber. It grows underground, typically near or right beneath the trees’ roots, mainly oak, beech, birch, poplars, and pine trees. They form a symbiotic relationship – meaning the tree and the truffles both get something out of the relationship, sugars, and nutrients.
The most prized truffles, the Tuber melanosporum or the winter black truffle, and the tuber magnatum or the white truffle from Alba, are found in France and Italy. The coveted Italian winter white truffle grows only in the Alba and Piedmont regions, while the black truffle is found both in France (near Perigord, which is why the black truffle is also known as the Perigord truffle) and Italy, but also across Western Europe.
The primary season for white truffles begins in September, reaches its peak in October and November, and begins to taper in December. The truffle that dominates the colder season is winter black truffle, which is commonly harvested in France.
The problem with truffles is that they grow underground, attached to the roots of trees. To find them, truffle hunters traditionally used pigs, whose instinct for rooting behavior helped hunters locate the fancy fungi. But, pigs have long been out of favor for hunting truffles, replacing them with the truffle dog. Multiple reasons why dogs have surpassed pigs are that:
But the real competitive advantage for canines lies in truffle hunting’s slippery nature. Truffle harvesting grounds are carefully kept secrets, with hunters being wildly protective of their turf. If you have a pig on a leash, everyone knows what you’re doing. But if you spot someone with a hound on a leash, they could just be enjoying some fresh country air. There is, of course, one thing pigs do have over dogs. They don’t need any training to find truffles. Dogs need a little help. The truffle is not something a dog would naturally search for on its own.
For a black summer truffle, you can anticipate spending around $30 per ounce. This may seem like a lot but keep in mind that a little goes a long way in the truffle department. If you are not planning on eating multiple meals in a row or sharing with a large group, you shouldn’t need more than 1 or 2 ounces to satisfy yourself.
Part of the baked-in cost is the price of transport for imported mushrooms, which is exceptionally high due to the lack of long-term shelf stability.
On the higher end of the spectrum, for white truffles, you can plan on spending around $100 per ounce, which is why restaurants will often have a surcharge of upwards of $50 for adding white truffle shavings to your meal.
In Africa and the Middle East, people use truffles as medicine for skin and eye conditions. But it is unclear how well they work. Some studies that tested a powerful truffle extract show that it may:
• Lower cholesterol
• Control blood sugar
• Protect your liver from damage
• Reduce inflammation throughout your body
• Fight bacterial infections
• Help prevent cancer
Keep in mind, the number of truffles you eat is much smaller, so it’s unlikely to have that kind of impact.
Once picked, truffles start to rot within ten days. It is not a good idea to boil or freeze them to try to make them last longer. Freezing ruins, a truffle’s texture, and boiling zaps its flavor.
Clean your truffles as soon as you get them. To do that, cut off any bad spots and brush off the dirt, then gently rinse and blot dry. Cover your truffles with a dry paper towel and keep them in your refrigerator until you are ready to use them.
A truffle’s odor and taste are so strong that a little bit goes a long way. You will get plenty of flavors if you grate or scrape small amounts onto your food right before you eat.
If you are using black truffles, don’t be afraid to give it a little gentle heat to bring out the flavor. Slowly warm some butter in a pan with the shaved shrooms, scramble your eggs, or use it mixed into a baked cheese dip or frittata. It also is an excellent option for gilding the lily and shaving over beef carpaccio or infusing into a steak pan sauce with wine.
If you splurge on white truffles, they should only be shaved on top of dishes. A simple, fresh pasta, risotto, or scrambled egg are among the classics. Another fantastic pairing is steamed asparagus with a fried egg on top.
Although you can buy truffle-flavored items like oil, pasta, and even potato chips, these do not contain real truffles. Since truffles go bad so quickly, items with a long shelf life rely on human-made truffle flavor. One way to preserve truffles so you can use them later is to grate them into butter and freeze it in small amounts.
The basic do’s: You want a wine that has some age to it (at least three years old) to compliment the truffle fragrance’s earthiness and complexity, ideally a bottle that is both subtle (to not overpower the mushrooms) and savory to complement them. Whether you opt for white, red, or sparkling, it mostly has to do with what else is on the plate.
What you do not want is something young (with too high acid), flimsy or fruity. In general, go for a medium-bodied wine that will not overwhelm the truffles yet stand up to them.
Though the terroir rule does not always have to apply, choosing something from Italy to a) match your truffles origin and b) because Italian wines are superb. And when you are splurging on something as unique and rare as a truffle, you want a fine wine to match!
If you are serving meat—or anything that would ordinarily be paired with red wine—a classic pairing for Italian truffles would be an aged Barolo or Barbaresco, from the Piedmont region, famous for its white truffles. Not only are they two of the most refined and impressive of Italy’s many fabulous reds, but they have the spice notes, medium-body, and earthiness that truffles require.
In the white department, try a slightly bolder, creamier Chardonnay. Though you might not think of Italy as a Chardonnay region, they have many excellent lightly oaked bottles that would be perfect for the job of pairing with black truffle risotto. Other great options: Piedmont whites such as Arneis or Timorasso, Alto Adige aromatic grapes like Pinot Bianco or Muller Thurgau, or Soave Classico from Veneto.
Lastly, a medium body sparkling wine would-be right-on cue for the occasion. Franciacorta is colloquially known as the “Champagne of Italy” because it’s produced using the same French methods. It is much richer than Prosecco, which would be too light for truffles, with a medium to full body. The creamy mouthfeel would be another option for a simple pasta, anything with a truffle bechamel.
The high-end industry has spawned a shadowy underworld, where tax evasion, nighttime heists, counterfeits, and sabotage are not uncommon. The schemes span continents and rule types, but all of them boil down to scarcity and cash.
Now more than ever, truffles are under a more significant threat of duplicity. With Chinese examples quickly being mixed in with French and Italian varieties, the market isn’t the only place where truffles compete with low value, tasteless foreign varieties. The countryside where the world’s most valued truffles grow is now under threat from invasive foreign varieties.
Italy has outlawed the sale of Chinese truffles, and many expect France to follow suit quickly.
“The fact that so many truffles have been found in Sonoma County, a region one hour north of San Francisco and best known for its wines, is stoking excitement among hopeful U.S. cultivators of the storied European crop. Experts say it could in a few years become a $6 billion global business.”
“But while France and Italy may be rich in truffle history, U.S. growers do have one big advantage: Chefs prize freshness, and a U.S. truffle can go from the ground to a chef’s kitchen in a day or overnight, where a European truffle may take days, losing its scent.”
During truffle season (October, November, December, and January), local restaurants pay homage to this “foodie” delicacy. Restaurants such as Agua, Luca, Grand Old House, and Kimpton Seafire all stand to host their extravagant truffle dinners. Evenings include multiple courses, with complementing food and wine pairings that sell out fast.
Who can resist the reliable french fry? Add shavings of truffle and parmesan cheese, and you have a trio made in heaven. For this comfort food fix, visit Andiamo (The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman) and Craft F&B Co. Both are well known for their famous truffle fries.
The season comes to an end with a 5-course truffle dinner and wine pairing by Chef Thomas Seifried at Blue by Eric Ripert in January during the annual Cayman Cookout. A highlight of the internationally acclaimed event hosted by Chef Eric Ripert and friends Jose Andreas and Emeril Legasse. If you get a chance to attend this event, it is a must.
Antonio Carluccio, Italian chef and restaurateur