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The Mysterious Truffle, Demystified
From mid-November through Valentine's Day each year, and sometimes even into early March, a variety of pigs and truffle-sniffing canines (pictured) throughout Europe get busy rooting up prized truffles, many of which will head immediately to Market Hall Foods (formerly The Pasta Shop). Truffles, famous for possessing some of the most seductive, enigmatic and coveted flavors on earth, are one food that has always been dear in price due to a limited area of growth and the difficulty in harvesting them.
Each year, the haunting flavors of the Tuber melanosporum (black truffle), Tuber magnatum (white truffle) and other varieties inspire countless truffle dinners (including at Rockridge Market Hall's Oliveto) and a host of truffle products that can be enjoyed all year long. But what exactly are these mysterious tubers, where do they come from and how are they best used? We'll try to answer these questions and more below.
What are truffles?
Truffles are the fruiting body of a fungus closely related to mushrooms. They form several inches underground at the base of certain types of trees, mainly oak and chestnut, and are typically rooted out with the help of truffle-sniffing pigs or dogs.
Although truffles grow around the world, they grow best inside a band around the globe stretching from the 40th to the 47th parallel. In Europe, this represents a swath that extends from just south of Madrid to about the center of France and includes some of the famous truffle regions in both France and Italy.
Truffles begin to form in the spring and are fully formed by around June. They continue to mature through the summer and into the fall. Most truffles are harvested between mid-November and the beginning of March.
Know your tuber
There are over 200 different species of truffles out there and only a handful of them are prized. You may have heard of the Alba White Truffle Market and the prosperous Périgord truffle-producing region in France, but in truth it's not that simple—white truffles are not all from Alba, and black truffles are not all from the Périgord. The quality of the truffle is always in the aroma, so get your noses ready.
Here is a quick overview of the varieties that we bring in to Market Hall Foods every year.
Italian White Truffle
Tuber Magnatum. Available mid-November through mid-January.
These exquisite blonde tubers are harvested in Northern and Eastern Italy. The aroma is pungent and pleasing, like nothing else—an effervescent combination of garlic and sweet Parmigiano-Reggiano. The price is high, but the experience is well worth it, and for some an addiction. They are simply intoxicating.
Fall Black Truffle, or Burgundy Truffle
Tuber Uncinatum. Available early November through mid-December.
Brought in from different regions in Northern Italy and Southern France, the Fall Black Truffle represents the autumn harvest. It is delicate, with a slight musty nose—a subtle earthy, woodsy aroma like a stroll in the hills after the rains—and possesses half the aroma of the illustrious Tuber melanosporum. However, when cooked properly, it successfully emits the black truffle flavor and aroma we crave.
Périgord Black Truffle, or Black Winter Truffle
Tuber Melanosporum. Available mid-December through mid-February.
We look for melanosporum truffles primarily from the Périgord, but also source some exceptional specimens from Italy and Spain. The aroma is longer and much earthier than the white truffle and therefore can be used in cooking rather than simply shaved over hot food. The pungency of this variety is deep and rich, reminiscent of earth and cocoa. It is one of the earth's true delicacies.
How do I use truffles?
Black truffles and white truffles are almost opposite in terms of how they are used in cooking and at the table, but in general they are best paired with fats (think cheese, butter, cream, olive oil and meats) and starchy foods (pasta, rice/risotto, polenta, bread and potatoes)—preferably both!—and they are shaved very thin so as not to waste any. To slice them, you can use a very sharp knife, but a truffle shaver (great for chocolate, too) is a tool crafted specifically for this purpose and makes the task easier and more efficient.
These truffles are all about the nose, or aroma. Don't cook with the white truffle. Instead, slice thinly at tableside over hot food before eating. The white truffle is best paired with a carbohydrate and a fat.
- Fresh egg pasta drenched in goat butter, finished with white truffle.
- Braised or roasted Belgian endive with Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce. Warm cream in a saucepan, reduce by half, add Parmigiano-Reggiano and/or Fontina Val d'Aosta to bring up flavor and texture. Finish with salt, pepper, nutmeg and white truffle.
- Scrambled eggs with aged Gruyère finished with white truffle.
- Carpaccio of veal with Meyer lemon, Italian parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, extra virgin olive oil, and shaved white truffle.
- Grilled levain bread rubbed with fresh garlic and olive oil and topped with white truffle.
- Salad of radicchio, endive, thinly sliced crimini mushrooms and fennel root, dressed with a light vinaigrette and topped with white truffle.
Mellower than the white varieties, black truffles release their flavor through heat and marinating.
Some suggested uses:
- Fresh egg pasta drenched in French Normandy Butter with fleur de sel and black truffle.
- Stuff thin slices of black truffle between the skin and meat of any game bird, bake and baste.
- Classic salad of arugula, Parmigiano-Reggiano and thinly sliced bresaola in a light vinaigrette, topped with sliced black truffle.
- Butternut Squash & Chestnut Ravioli, topped with butter and black truffle.
- Mashed potatoes with butter, cream, Beaufort and black truffle.
- Creamy polenta finished with Taleggio and black truffle.
- Grilled pork chop, butterflied and stuffed with black truffle.
How do I store truffles before use?
First, it's necessary to keep your truffle refrigerated to maintain and stabilize its moisture. When you purchase a truffle (black or white) at Market Hall Foods, it will be wrapped in cheesecloth to create that stable environment. Like most fresh foods, truffles will lose moisture naturally. The cheesecloth will hold that moisture in, creating a humid environment without allowing the truffle to get too wet. Truffles do not like to get wet, as too much moisture speeds up the breakdown of the texture and body.
Neither do truffles like to be too dry. It used to be common (and still is some places) to store truffles submerged in a jar of rice. While this is great for infusing the rice with truffle essence, it ruins the truffle, basically sucking the moisture out of it. Better to keep the cheesecloth-wrapped truffle in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
If you do want to get multiple uses out of your tuber, simply place the items that you want to absorb the truffle essence—rice, butter, eggs, pasta, etc.—in an airtight container with the cheesecloth-wrapped truffle nestled on top (make sure the container is sealed well). Let sit for a day or two in the refrigerator. If you prefer, Market Hall Foods can set you up with our meal kit, "The Big Splurget" consisting of arborio rice, Normandy butter, farm-fresh eggs, and a fresh, cheesecloth-wrapped black or white truffle of your choice, all in a tall glass jar. Simply keep it in the fridge for two days and enjoy a sumptuous meal on the third day.
Are there any environmental or animal welfare concerns surrounding truffles, as there are with some other luxury foods?
No. Truffles and truffle hunting inflict no damage on the environment or on the animals used to find them. Truffles are found, not made, and except for cleaning off the dirt, there is no processing involved with these tasty tubers. They form naturally at the base of certain trees in the woods and are sniffed out by specially trained pigs and dogs. Pigs are very good at truffle hunting and are the traditional choice, but unfortunately they like the truffles too much and are as apt to scarf them down themselves as they are to hand them over.
Dogs are good at finding truffles too, and don't care about eating them, so have become the animal of choice for truffle hunters. Also, according to Patricia Wells in her excellent book, Simply Truffles, dogs are less conspicuous than a pig in the car or out hiking in the woods (truffle hunters go to great lengths to conceal their favorite hunting spots). As for the animals themselves, truffle hunting is merely a good romp in the woods with (in the case of dogs, anyway) their best friend.
Are truffles good with vegetarian dishes?
Absolutely. Black truffles are delicious with all kinds of vegetables, including potatoes, artichokes, pumpkins, celery root and chestnuts. White truffles are dreamy shaved over piping hot polenta with cheese or creamy pasta. For fish-eating vegetarians (pescatarians), they are also excellent with many kinds of seafood, like oysters, scallops and salmon.