It’s truffle season in Paris, and the knobby tubers are turning up on restaurant menus all over town. Many people, however, don’t know their Alba from their elbow, and can’t understand why a kilo of fungus might sell (at December’s Artcurial auction) for a whopping 1,913€. I myself was stumped over the holidays when I bought a truffled Brillat-Savarin cheese from two different sources and discovered a vast difference in intensity and flavor. Why was one truffle so much better than the other?
To increase my knowledge and enjoyment of this luxe ingredient, I turned to truffle maven (and contributing advisor) Patricia Wells. The James Beard Award-winning author has just published a new book called Simply Truffles, containing 60 recipes plus tips on buying, storage and preparation that will help any cook lucky enough to get her hands on a truffle. Being sans truffe myself, I read it mainly as a reference to help me understand what’s being shaved atop my dishes in Paris restaurants. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll strike out and buy a tuber of my own (more about procurement later this week). For now, let me share some truffle basics that I learned from Wells’ beautiful new book:
- The winter black truffle or truffe noir (Tuber melanosporum) is harvested from November to March and is at its peak of flavor right now during the month of January. This truffle is sometimes called the “Périgord” truffle, although only 20% of production comes from Southwest France. The majority of French black truffles are today harvested in the Vaucluse department of Provence. Another nickname is le diamant noir – the black diamond.
- The summer “white” truffle or truffe de Saint-Jean (Tuber aestivum) is less powerful and less expensive – about one twentieth the price – of the black winter truffle.
- The Burgundy truffle or truffe de Bourgogne (Tuber uncinatum) is somewhere between the winter and summer truffle, both in terms of intensity and price.
- The Italian white truffle or truffe blanche d’Alba (Tuber magnatum) is even more rare and expensive than the French black truffle, and is at its peak of flavor in October and November.
- The Chinese truffle (Tuber sinensis or Tuber indicum) is a winter black truffle harvested in China, one that is often exported to the West as an inferior-quality substitute for the French black truffle. These are sometimes soaked with extracts from the authentic French black truffle and then sold (wrongly) as Tuber melanosporum for a higher price. If you see a truffle on sale at Monoprix for 15€, it is almost certainly a Chinese truffle. [Note: this point about Chinese truffles didn't come from Wells, so please don't blame her if I got it wrong]
The Attraction of Truffles
- The attraction of truffles can be partially attributed to their rarity, but taste has something to do with it, too. Wells describes truffles as having the scent of dry mushroom, humus and wet forest, with an earthy hazelnut flavor in the mouth. Diane Ackerman, in her book A Natural History of the Senses, compares the scent of the truffle to “the muskiness of a rumpled bed after an afternoon of love in the tropics.” Their strange sensuality can be attributed to the fact that truffles exude pheromones – a chemical secreted by male pigs (and also humans) in order to attract the animals that unearth them.
- A truffle is the fruiting body of a fungus that grows in symbiosis with (mainly) oak and hazelnut trees. Truffles continue to evade our attempts at cultivation, and that elusiveness contributes greatly to their charm and price.
- In 1847, a truffle farmer in Carpentras named August Rousseau was able to create ideal conditions for truffles by planting oak trees from acorns gathered beneath truffle-producing oaks. His harvest was so large that he received a prize at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris.
- In 1977, the first truffle was harvested beneath a tree that had been inoculated with truffle spores. Today, 80% of all truffles in France are found beneath trees that have been artificially mychorrizalized in this way.
- Despite these advances, truffles are becoming increasingly rare. In just over 100 years, the annual truffle harvest has dropped from 2,200 tons in 1892 to 31 tons in 2010.
- Because truffles grow several inches below the ground, humans depend on pigs or dogs to sniff them out. Female pigs have an innate ability to smell truffles because the tuber secretes a pheromone that resembles the sex hormone secreted by wild boars. Dogs need to be trained to hunt the tuber, but they can also be trained, unlike pigs, to not eat the truffle.
- Patricia Wells‘ newest book Simply Truffles is a great reference and recipe trove for truffle lovers. As chef Joël Robuchon writes in the foreward, “Patricia Wells, charming talented ambassador for the truffle, succeeds beautifully in sharing her love for this mysterious product of incomparable taste.”
- I also love this article, originally published in 2001 in the International Herald Tribune, in which Wells recounts the heated negotiations between her family and the poachers who lay claim to the truffles on her land.
- For a wonderful look at pig-assisted foraging, see David Lebovitz’ post about Truffle Hunting in Southwest France. The photos of pig and master are just stunning.