Once you become familiar with the basic cooking tips and tricks – for knowing how you can prepare a quick salad, you can get more info here – you are ready to dive deeper into the art of haute cuisine and learn more about premium ingredients and techniques. One of the most sought-after ingredients in the most refined cuisines is the truffle.
Truffles are commonly known as a type of rare and expensive mushroom. They are a prized delicacy, an ingredient that is used sparsely and with great consideration. Plus, they are one of the most costly ingredients in the world, with prices reaching up to thousands of dollars per pound, for the ones that come from Italy.
Let’s take a look at what truffles are and where they grow, what some highlights of their rich history are and where they can be found around the world.
What are truffles and what do they look like?
Fungi come in many shapes and forms, as we all know, and some of them are subterranean, meaning that they are found underneath the surface of the soil. Several of these types of fungi are classified as truffles, but only the Tuber and Terfezia genera, which belong to the Pezizales order, are used for consumption.
In fact, the types of truffles that are prevalent are the ones which cannot be used for consumption, some of them even being poisonous.
The truffles that we know are different species within the two main genera, some of which are highly regarded and much more expensive than the rest. The white truffle (Tuber magnatum) is, by far, the most valuable and sought-after type of truffle, due to its exquisite flavor and rarity. It is found only in certain regions in Italy, where it’s known as ‘trifola d’Alba Madonna’.
The second most valuable type of truffle is the black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) which comes from the southwest of France and it’s one of the key ingredients in the famous foie gras. Besides these two famous Italian and French species, there are several other types of truffles, such as the black summer truffles, the whitish truffle or the Oregon black truffle, that are also used.
The part that we use as a culinary ingredient is the fruiting body of the fungus. Its unusual, irregular shape and dark exterior are not the most appealing, but its aroma is what made it so famous throughout history. The smell of truffles is difficult to describe because of its complexity, but it is certainly earthy and impossible to forget.
The various species of truffles can look so similar that they could be mistaken for one another, but each of them has its particular aroma, with distinctive nuances, like the smell of wine. They are relatively small in size and have a fleshy interior.
Where do truffles grow and how are they harvested?
Unlike other natural products, truffles cannot be simply cultivated on a large scale and this is also what makes them so precious and expensive. Truffles require not only specific types of soils but also the vicinity of specific trees, such as oak, hazel, birch, and others, with which they develop a symbiotic relationship, meaning that they are mutually beneficial to one another.
Because subterraneous fungi cannot spread their spores with the help of the wind, they need to be discovered and extracted by animals, thus ensuring their multiplication. In order to achieve this, truffles have developed a chemical composition that literally attracts certain animals to them. That is why the aroma of truffles is so strong and distinctive.
Foraging animals are essential for the extraction of truffles, not only because they can detect the exact location but also because truffles should be consumed when their flavor has reached its peak and this delicate moment is when they start exuding the volatile substances that attract animals – female pigs, to be more precise.
Truffles contain a substance that resembles one of the male pig’s pheromones, thus attracting the female pigs, which were traditionally used for truffle hunting in Italy and France, and still are in some regions.
Since truffle hunting began to be practiced by European royalties in the 18th century, pigs were eventually replaced by trained dogs, which were also more polite and did not eat the truffles that they found.
The history of truffles
Subterranean fungi are actually over one hundred million years old and they seem to have developed from above-ground mushrooms, due to a lack of water. Edible truffles were known to ancient Sumerians and ancient Greeks. During the Roman Empire, they were already regarded as a delicacy, even though it seems that they were much easier to find back then and also bigger.
After being nearly forgotten during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance represented the most glorious period in the history of truffles. Not only were they considered a delicacy fit for royalties, but truffle hunting also became a noble activity. Even the notorious Marquis de Sade was apparently aware of their aphrodisiac effect and included truffles in his seduction arsenal.
The scientific study of truffles was officially established in the 18th century, when the first book entirely dedicated to the white truffle was published in Italy. The mysterious truffle has fascinated both gourmets and scientists.
Where can truffles be found?
One would think that, with so many species spread around the world, truffles should be a simple natural product like many others. However, the black kame (Terfezia bouderi) from the Middle East and other lesser-known species are simply not considered equal to the white truffle and the black Périgord. Practically, the most sought after truffles only grow in specific areas.
White truffles are mainly found in the Italian district of Piedmont and other small regions, black truffles are native to the Périgord region, in France. Croatia and the north of Spain are also places where truffles can be found. These regions were once so abundant that they could provide tons of truffles per season.
Unfortunately, due to climate change and other factors, harvests have dropped tremendously, to a maximum of 150 tons per year. The most important thing that can be done to sustain the natural growth of these prized truffles is to support the trees that are associated with them to make sure that there are enough trees for new truffles to grow.
Contributing to this delicate and complex ecosystem requires a lot of patience and takes a lot of time. Truffles don’t immediately start to grow after an oak or a hazel tree has been inoculated with the spores. It actually takes several years. Of course, the soil and the weather conditions also need to be just right. On the other hand, a single bearing tree can be productive for almost 30 years.
These types of inoculated trees that have been then transplanted under specific conditions are at the base of French ‘truffieres’ or truffle farms, that have provided a significant amount of the black truffle harvest over the last years. Even though the queen of truffles, the white truffle, is still mainly wild, small truffle farms are also present in Italy.
Some of the truffle farms have also become tourist attractions and they offer those who visit them the opportunity to find out more about the entire process of harvesting, cleaning and preserving truffles, and even to participate in a truffle hunt.
The current European shortage and the prospect of a booming business have determined other countries to give truffle farming a chance, as long as the local climate allowed it. The United States, Australia and New Zealand have started to transplant inoculated trees in areas where black truffles did not naturally grow.
The U.S. is even betting on one of its native species, the Oregon truffle, that seems to come pretty close to the elusive white truffle. Unlike its European counterparts, this truffle grows in symbiosis to Douglas fir trees and it’s attractive not to pigs, but to rodents.
On another note, European truffles actually have an enemy and that is a species of Chinese truffle. Just like any other rare and expensive product, truffles are also exposed to forgery and truffle exports can contain Chinese truffles instead of the European ones because the identification process can only be performed in a lab.
Therefore, be careful where you get your truffles from and make sure that they come from a reliable source.