Fungus Among Us
On a warm October evening, the air of Alba in northwestern Italy is saturated with the intoxicating perfume of the season. The city’s famous festival, a celebration of the white truffle, begins in a few days. Ridgely Evers, an Internet executive and olive farmer from Healdsburg, California, and his bride, chef Colleen McGlynn, slip down an alleyway near the center of town. In a tiny store, its name long forgotten, they purchase a single white truffle, slightly bigger than a golf ball. They run to their car, race across northern Italy to Venice, check into the Pensione Academia, and then stroll to Al Covo, where they hand over the fungus. Soon, customers’ heads turn enviously as the chef delivers an earthy masterpiece, tender pasta with fresh porcini and every last bit of that white truffle.
Truffles. Of all the wild gifts nature offers—fiddleheads, King salmon, black chanterelles, caviar, morels—few are as treasured as the truffle. The truffle is a kind of fungus that grows underground, its vast web of mycelium, the plant from which fungi fruit, entwining with the roots of host trees in an essential but little-understood relationship. (Attempts to inoculate trees in Europe and the United States have either failed or produced such a small crop of inferior truffles that it’s hardly been worth the effort, at least so far.)
Truffles send up few telltale signs, nothing more than a barren ring around a tree and a primal, narcotic aroma that is so intense you can smell it if you get anywhere near an underground cache. Humans can’t navigate hunched over, noses down, of course, so we use quadrupeds to hunt our truffles. Female pigs hunt with gusto, following the truffle’s musk-like scent, released by a chemical also found in a male pig’s saliva. Many truffle hunters today use trained dogs who don’t share the sow’s passion for the pungent truffle. They hunt for the little rewards offered by their masters. A few dogs are so good at this kind of hunting that they have international reputations.
A Truffle for All Seasons
There are three distinct truffle seasons. One type of black truffle, the least fragrant, is available in the summer, generally from the middle of May through early September; its taste is often described as mushroomy, its aroma as subtle. It sells for around $450 a pound.
The black truffle that is available in the winter is more flavorful, more aromatic and more valuable than the summer truffle. It grows throughout southern France, as well as in Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia. The French call it “the black diamond,” the queen of truffles, and insist that it is the finest truffle in the world. Last year, wholesale prices ranged from $450 to $850 a pound. This truffle needs heat to release its volatile oils.
The white truffle is harvested only in northern Italy. Though it is generally available from October through the end of December, it is at its peak in the fall. White truffles fetch the highest prices—from $800 to $1500 a pound wholesale last season—and are generally considered the most prized truffles.
These seasons overlap, making one truffle or another available almost year round. For the lean times, there are a number of truffle-related products. Only a small amount of fresh truffles ever make it to the fresh market; most are processed. The best products—truffle butter and truffle oils made with high-quality extra-virgin olive oil—are excellent, contributing true truffle flavor and satisfying all but the most tenacious truffle jones. Most aficionados find canned truffles disappointing, and truffle flour doesn’t approach the real thing in taste or aroma.
The Nose Knows
Truffles don’t look like much. They range in size from smaller than a hazelnut to as big as a melon, though the largest ones are extraordinarily rare. The white ones resemble a nubby potato, the black ones appear to be covered in tiny warts. Their seductive aromas make up for what they lack in visual appeal. In addition to their infamous scent, truffles also are high in glutamic acid, a natural form of monosodium glutamate (MSG), which accounts for why they intensify the flavors of other ingredients.
Truffles have long dazzled anyone who encounters them. Plutarch believed they grew where lightning struck; in the Dark Ages they were shunned as the fruit of Satan. The Renaissance embraced them. Over the centuries, we have sprinkled them with Cognac, wrapped them in salt pork and baked them buried in hot ashes. We have paired them with foie gras in countless variations, fried them with potatoes in goose fat and folded them into fluffy scrambled eggs and omelets. We have grated the white ones over pasta, risotto and polenta, stirred them into bagna cauda and fonduta and filled tarts with a paste of butter, fontina, and ground truffle. We tuck them under the skin of all types of poultry, and even season ice cream with them.
The only problem with truffles is getting them—and the expense isn’t the only obstacle. Unscrupulous dealers trick the public, filling small holes with clay or lead to increase their weight, dying grey ones and selling them as black. And in perhaps the worse abuse, traders in Holland and the United States once made what they called fantasy truffles, black balls of blood, starch, egg yolk and synthetic truffle flavoring.
Doing It Yourself
Today’s best chefs are every bit as enamored with truffles as their forebears were. From coast to coast, restaurants offer truffle menus that feature the fungus in every course. From Elizabeth Daniel, Masa’s, One Market and Campton Place in San Francisco and the Sonoma Mission Inn and the French Laundry in the California wine country,
to Le Cirque 2000, 21, March and dozens of others in New York City, tasting menus offer indulgent —and pricey—feasts that celebrate the truffle. Truffles have become so popular—”People are fixated on them,” Marco Maccioni of Le Cirque says—that many restaurants always keep at least one truffle dish on the menu.
A truffle extravaganza at a top restaurant can be a delightful indulgence, but it’s also possible to put together a private feast at your own table. If you have an excellent gourmet shop near you, ask the manager to help you get some truffles. If not, Urbani Truffles and Caviar, one of the country’s best truffle importers, offers fresh truffles through their web site (www.urbani.com).
Although you will rarely be in the position to rifle through a bin of truffles looking for the best ones, a fresh truffle should be firm and solid, with a powerful and earthy fragrance. If it is soft or if it smells of ammonia, it is past its prime and should be returned to its source for a refund. If you have a choice, choose larger rather than smaller truffles—they will have more flavor. You’ll need to keep your truffle dry and protect other foods from its penetrating aroma; the best method is to put rice in a glass jar, bury your truffle in the rice, close the jar with its lid, and store in the refrigerator. Use the truffle within a few days, and be sure to use the rice, too, which will be perfumed by the truffle.
At $1,500 a pound wholesale, white truffles seem wildly expensive. Yet only top chefs buy truffles by the pound; most chefs buy them by the ounce, home cooks by the gram. The general rule is to buy as much as you can comfortably afford, using a recipe’s quantity as a guideline but not an absolute rule. If a chef calls for an ounce of white truffle, for example—that’s about $300 worth—you can make a great dish using half that amount, or even a little less. With white truffles, a little goes a long way.
Black truffles are both less powerful and less expensive, but are still sold by the gram. Twenty-five dollars will usually get you at least 25 grams, nearly an ounce, plenty to infuse a recipe with good truffle flavor. It is important to keep in mind, however, that black and white truffles cannot be used interchangeably. Black truffles need heat to release their flavor, which is never as intense as that of white truffles. White truffles do not need heat, and are best added to a dish shortly before serving.
To shave or slice a truffle, all you need is a sharp paring knife or a good blade grater. Those nifty truffle slicers are sexy, but are best as a gift to a friend who has everything; they are not essential.
Once you have your precious truffle tucked into its jar in the fridge, you can read restaurant menus (see sidebar) and peruse cookbooks for ideas that appeal to you and that don’t seem too difficult. Wayne Nish of March Restaurant believes, as many chefs do, that it is the simplest recipes that most flatter the beguiling truffle. The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (1984) includes a recipe for risotto that begins with the instruction to bury a fresh white truffle in arborio rice for three days. For scrambled eggs, break a dozen eggs into a large bowl, drop in a black truffle, and refrigerate overnight. How hard is that?
|Erik Blauberg’s Carpaccio of Venison with Truffle Mustard Vinaigrette|
|Wayne Nish’s White Truffle Napoleon with Taleggio and Sweet Onion Marmalade|
|Scott Cutaneo’s White Truffle Risotto with Porcinis and White Truffles|
A Note About Wine
When it comes to wine, consider geography first. Marco Maccioni of Le Cirque 2000 prefers the wines of Piedmont—the Arneis, Dolcetto and Barbera that are typically served with white truffles in Italy. Look for lean white wines with earthy elements, and when it comes to reds, choose wines without big tannins that might compete with the starring truffle. With black truffles, most of which come from the south of France, look first to the high-acid dry rosés of Provence. But with any dish that includes truffles, you must consider the major ingredients, not just the truffle itself, when selecting a wine.