Truffles have been highly valued for their rich, pungent flavor, and culinary value for as long as time itself. Truffles have been sought after and enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians, who, not unlike connoisseurs today, held truffles in high esteem because people believed truffles were created when lightning struck the ground.
Truffles are essentially an edible fungus, to be exact, they are the “fruiting body” of a subterranean fungus. They generally range in size from strawberry- to apple, the largest truffle ever found weighed just under 1.9kg and was discovered in Italy- known for its amazing truffles.
Truffles haven’t always been rare, on the contrary, truffles really only became a high-class, luxury when global demand and over-foraging drove the price way up.
Why so costly
Truffles are expensive because they’re hard to find, exasperating to grow, and best eaten fresh- which makes them difficult to store and savor later. Truffles only grow in certain areas and under very specific conditions. For example, black truffles require frost-free, mild dry winter conditions; warm (but not hot) summer conditions to thrive. Truffles cannot be grown commercially, nor can they be recreated in a lab. Truffles only grow associated with certain tree roots- oak, beech, pine, hazel, and poplar- the tree roots provide essential sugars required for the truffle to grow. Cultivating truffles- trying to re-create ideal growing conditions, is difficult and costly and can take several years or even decades to be of any success. However, those that stick with it, can have a slice of the ever-expanding estimated $6 Billion global markets.
Where they Grow
Different species of Truffles can be found worldwide. They are found in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, China, North Africa, and the Middle East. They have recently been found growing in the Southern Hemisphere as well, in both Australia and New Zealand. Prestige truffles originate in specific areas, from eminent regions of Europe (most notably in France and Italy) as well as in California. In fact, black truffles from France, grown paired with oak and hazelnut trees in the Périgord region; and white truffles found in the Langhe and Montferrat areas of Northern Italy are some of the most highly valued, sought after truffle varieties in the world.
Black or White Truffle
Aside from their general appearance, black truffles and white truffles differ greatly, particularly when it comes to taste and shelf-life.
Because it is readily more available, and in the season for six to nine months a year- the black truffle is much more common- and more affordable than its white counterpart. Black truffles have a stouter taste and a pungent aroma. Like all truffles, Black truffles should be enjoyed fresh, but they can be frozen- making them ideal for fine restaurants looking to keep their costs down- as they are able to buy black truffles in bulk.
White truffles, on the other hand also known as “Earth’s gold” are in season for a short period- typically three to four months from September through January. White truffles have a very short shelf-life, of about 10 days and should be enjoyed as soon as possible. White truffles cannot be frozen- and have a softer flavor, and are less pungent- and more sought after; making them expensive. A kilogram of white truffles can fetch upwards of $3000.
Depending on where the truffles are grown, a truffle “hog” is used to locate these delicacies; the only drawback is that pigs like truffles whereas dogs don’t so there is little risk of losing this expensive bounty when using canines. Both dogs and pigs have an exceptional sense of smell, and both are able to root out the truffles that typically grow from one to three feet below the surface.
Truffles grow in various parts of the world, and like the soil, they are grown in, the flavors of truffles vary depending on where they originated. It is said that truffles taste the way they smell- because a truffle’s flavor comes from its aroma and not its taste. Terms often used to describe truffle aroma (and subsequent taste) include: nutty, earthy, oaky, pungent- sweet and juicy. Truffles can be musky, gamy, meaty, mushroom-esque. Truffles have been described as tasting like olives combined with Parmesan cheese (especially Black Truffles). White truffles are more delicate, with aromatic undertones, earthy Parmesan mushrooms. Regardless of what hidden nuances your palate can pick up, they are in one word delicious.
Truffles on a budget
If you have always wanted to try truffles, but aren’t sure whether they are for you or not- you can always opt for truffle-infused products (rather than committing to an actual truffle). There are a variety of truffle-infused products on the market- just ensure it contains actual truffle (at least if you want the real truffle experience). These truffle products include; truffle-infused Olive oils, salts, jams, tapenades, butter, and spreads (to name a few). The price will range from a little to a lot, depending on how much real truffle has been used. and so forth.
If you’re still concerned over price, there are also a wide variety of “truffle-inspired” products that use extracts that mimic truffle aroma and flavor. An affordable alternative if you want to take your pizza, popcorn, or poutine to the next level, but they can hardly be compared to the real thing. Either way, Bon Appetit!