In ancient Greece, the historian Plutarch claimed that they hailed from lightning striking the Earth. A century ago, French writer Alexandre Dumas said, "They can, on certain occasions, make women more tender and men more lovable."
The famous French gastronome Brillat-Savarin called them "diamonds of the kitchen." At an annual auction in Alba, Italy, on Nov. 12, a Hong Kong property tycoon paid $160,406 for a mere 3-pound specimen.
The source of this mania? The truffle, an underground fungus with an ethereal taste.
Truffles are an unusual member of the mushroom family, growing completely underground in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. They typically range in size from about a marble to a medium potato -- in colors including white, brown, gray and black -- and have been consumed by humans for thousands of years.
But most significantly, truffles taste and smell like nothing else: a slowly unfolding combination of deep, earthy richness with a pervasive, musky fragrance.
It's impossible to forget your initial encounter. When I first picked up a white truffle, I was taken aback at how a knotty, diminutive tuber could emit such a heady perfume, redolent of absolutely nothing I'd ever encountered before.
This experience comes at a price, however. Truffles currently retail for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per pound, depending on the type and time of year.
One of the causes of truffles' exorbitant price is availability -- today's production is one-tenth of what it was a century ago -- and the fact that there is no reliable or quick way to cultivate them.
Further, unearthing the truffles that are out there is quite labor intensive. For centuries, humans have relied on the superior olfactory senses of pigs and dogs to sniff out the treasure. As ripe truffles release a scent similar to that of a porcine pheromone, pigs are the most sensitive hunters; however, their short legs do tire easily (requiring them to often be carried) and they can, wisely, be possessive of the treasures they find.
With dogs, hunters do not have to fight for the bounty, but the animals must be painstakingly trained to pick out the scent.
Beneath the Surface
The two primary types of truffles are the white or Alba truffle, which is found in the Piedmont region of Italy, and the black or Perigord truffle, hailing from central and southwestern France.
Varieties also are found in the deserts of North Africa, southern China, and in the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., notably the Oregon white truffle. These domestic truffles are often -- somewhat unfairly -- disregarded in the industry as far less fragrant and flavorful and therefore not "true" truffles.
Forest ecologist Matt Trappe, of the
North American Truffling Society (NATS), offers an explanation. Truffle culture is far younger and less advanced in the United States than in Europe, and American harvesters usually gather them with rakes, not pigs or dogs. Therefore, immature specimens that haven't had the time to properly develop the signature, deep aroma and flavor are often collected and sold.
Compounding the problem, American truffle buyers (often, the restaurants directly) may lack the practiced palate of their European counterparts, so they don't demand mature, superior specimens from the sellers.
To view Ana Dane's video take of today's Top 1% segment, click here.
However, Trappe points out that Americans do have one advantage in the truffle realm -- an abundance of potential truffle habitat, much of which is on public land.
"In Europe, most truffle patches are privately owned and access is restricted. There is much less habitat left in Europe than there is here. Truffle productivity in Europe has been declining steadily in the last 50 years, largely due to land use conversion and other habitat degradation," Trappe continues.
This presents an opportunity that some American truffle aficionados are seizing.
Seeds of Change
Money may not grow on trees. But what about underneath them?
Charles Lefevre, president of NATS and
New World Truffieres in Eugene, Ore., believes it may. His company sells and ships seedlings -- hazelnut or oak trees -- inoculated with truffle spores, starting around $50 each.
Although Lefevre can't guarantee these trees will produce truffles, he says that if the proper growing conditions are met, the yield after five to seven years can be anywhere from 20 to 100 pounds of truffles per acre (usually about 200 trees). At the current price of $700 a pound, this can prove a lucrative investment.
Lefevre has sold trees across the country, and notes that his clientele tends to be from a similar demographic as those who pioneered the domestic wine industry. "It's people looking for a lifestyle change, who want to make their hobby their job," he explains.
The newly established
Oregon Truffle Festival, set for Jan. 26-28, 2007, is an ideal venue to learn more about cultivation as well as celebrate these newcomers to the truffle world (
tickets available online).
Luckily, the harvest season is upon us for these dirt-encrusted gems. It runs from October to mid-December for the white truffle, and from late December to March for the black.
Aside from the large annual truffle markets in Italy and France, chefs worldwide are featuring the delicacies in dishes ranging from Thomas Keller's Chestnut and Sunchoke Confit with White Truffle Royale (a transcendent soup poured atop a truffle custard) at
Per Se and Daniel Boulud's decadent DB Burger (ground sirloin and short ribs, braised in red wine, foie gras and black truffles) at
DB Bistro Moderne.
Tony Esnault, executive chef at the prestigious
Alain Ducasse at the Essex House restaurant in Manhattan, has even created a transcendent
tasting menu for $320, starring white truffles.
This unforgettable meal contains standouts like the unique White Truffle Impression Pasta -- fresh pasta studded with truffle and paired with sauteed wild mushrooms -- and the simple, elegant Egg and Tartufi -- softly scrambled eggs presented in a delicate eggshell cup, shrouded in truffle shavings.
Handle With Care
If you're lucky enough to get your hands on some truffles, make sure you treat them properly: Store them in the refrigerator, individually wrapped in paper towels. If they do require cleaning, never rinse them under water; simply wipe with a damp cloth or soft brush to remove any surface dirt or grit before preparing.
And as Chef Tony Esnault points out, truffles loses about 10% of their weight overnight, so buy them only just before you plan to serve them. Truffles truly are designed to be enjoyed fresh.
So, slice 'em if you got 'em, whether into a cream sauce, over a potato gratin or risotto, or as an intoxicating accompaniment to any delicately flavored dish. The most important thing to remember is to add white truffles only right before serving, so as not to overly heat and destroy their nuanced fragrance and flavor.
On the other hand, black truffles can withstand cooking, and are a perfect complement for stronger flavors: red meats or game, foie gras and aged cheeses.
However you serve up truffles on your holiday table this year -- or horde for the ultimate self-indulgent treat -- it will be a meal to remember.
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