Everything You Need To Know About Truffle
It was the elusive aroma of one freshly unearthed white variety that sent food writer Rowan Jacobsen down a rabbit hole of truffle hunting. He set off on a tour around seven different countries, from the forests of Tuscany to the back alleys of Budapest, exploring the mysterious world of this elusive fungi and recording his findings in a new book, Truffle Hound. Just in time for the UK’s truffle hunting season, Rowan shares some of his findings with C&TH.
Rowan Jacobsen on the Secrets of Truffle
Can you give us a brief history of truffle?
Truffles have been revered as having the greatest aroma of any natural food since Ancient Roman times, and they have been a staple on luxury restaurant tables since the 1800s. The French and Italians have long dominated production, consumption and myth-making, but that is now changing fast.
How are truffles found?
Because they grow underground, truffles require an animal with a really good sniffer to find them. We don’t qualify, but pigs, dogs and many other animals do. Centuries ago, farmers noticed their pigs uprooting these funny ‘stinky potatoes’ in the woods, and going crazy for them, so that was the root of modern truffle hunting. But by the 1700s, everyone had realised that it was way easier to use a dog. Dogs work for treats, and they fit into your Fiat much more easily.
What are the common misconceptions surrounding the ingredient?
The biggest misconception is that all those truffle oils and fries have any real truffle in them. They are actually flavoured with an artificial chemical that mimics one of the aroma compounds in truffles. A real one has more than 50 aroma compounds and is infinitely more complex and refined than the ersatz stuff. If any truffle product seems suspiciously cheap, it probably has virtually no real truffle in it. If you want to experience true truffles, you have to work with fresh ones.
Where can we get the best ones from?
This is where the news is very exciting. More high-quality truffles, from more different places, are available now than ever before. And because you only need a few grams for a serving, it doesn’t cost a lot to have them overnighted to your door. That, I think, is the future of truffles: home cooks ordering directly from companies or even from the hunters themselves.
Why is truffle such an expensive ingredient?
They grow in tiny quantities and are hard to find, so there is never a huge supply in terms of weight. A typical truffle farm might only produce a few kilos. But because you only need a few grams per serving, they aren’t as expensive as people think. You are probably still going to spend more on wine.
What’s the most expensive variety?
The white truffle is the most expensive. It can easily cost £2,500 per kilo. That’s because – unlike the black variety – no one can figure out how to cultivate the white, so they are all hunted in the wild. Supply is always uncertain. Northern Italy – especially the region around Alba, where the famous truffle fair is held – is often believed to be the only place white truffles can be found, but today more of them come from central Italy and Eastern Europe, though they are often still passed off as Italian.
Any interesting facts about truffle that people might not know?
Almost everyone has heard of the black truffle of France (sometimes called the ‘Perigord’) and the white truffle of Italy, but there are thousands of species of truffles found around the world, and dozens of them have culinary value. A fantastic truffle known as a ‘black autumn’ grows wild in the UK, as well as elsewhere in northern Europe. The United States is just discovering that it has half a dozen excellent varieties. Australia is becoming a truffle powerhouse. The whole world of truffles is opening up, diversifying, and getting much more interesting for it.
What does it pair best with?
Those aromatic compounds in truffles are intense but very volatile; they will escape into the ether as soon as a truffle is shaved over food. The key is to use fats that will absorb those volatile aromas and release them in your mouth. Butter, cream, olive oil, eggs, even avocado are great things to pair with truffles. And because truffles bring a complexity and intensity to food, I like to use them in vegetarian cooking a lot.
What can you tell us about the truffle black market?
Like other ingredients that are harvested in the wild, truffles are often sold through a chain of buyers who do their business out of sight of the taxman, if you know what I mean. And because most people believe that France has the best black truffles and Italy the best white ones, many truffles from other places get their citizenship changed en route. But this is all changing now that more people are learning that great truffles come from so many different places. Most encouraging of all is the number of hunters selling local truffles directly to chefs in their area. Because of this, we are entering a golden age of truffles where the quality is higher than ever before. A very exciting time to be a truffle hound.
Favourite truffle dish you’ve ever had?
Easy: Truffled Egg Nog. The cream and eggs absorb the rich, earthy scents of black truffles and make for an incredibly decadent dish – perfect for making a splash at the holidays.
Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs is out now. Images from Getty Images.
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