This post is dedicated to Asad Raza, the first 3QD foodie to ask me about truffles.
The two images above come from distant eras when that rare and coveted underground fungus, the truffle, was in more abundant supply than at present. The gatherer on the left, in the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval herbal treatise at the Bibliotheque Rouen (thanks to BibliOdyssey), seems to have happened upon a trove of squash ball-sized truffles, positioned conveniently above ground. More realistically, the 19th century diggers on the right, aided by poodles, search among the roots of an oak, where a black truffle — the ultimate prize of French gastronomy — may occasionally be found about six inches below the surface. (Readers interested in a 4000-year overview of human/truffle relations, including the truffle’s extensively documented use as a love food, are referred to my earlier 3QD article.)
Since the truffle harvest of today is down more than twenty-fold from 100 years ago, down incalculably from the time of the Tacuinum Sanitatis, the hunt is nothing like so easy as it appears in either scene above, and is conducted according to very different rules. Typically, hunters go out before dawn accompanied not by humans but by trained dogs or pigs — who cannot tell what they know about the spot, or come back to it on their own when the hunter is no longer about. With the exception of the legendary truffle-hunting virgins of Perigord, who ceased to flourish in the early 20th century, a human has not quite the nose for finding truffles, however violently she desires to eat them.
I used to see tiny tins of conserved truffles — about the diameter of napkin rings, under lock and key at fancy grocers — long before I saw a fresh one, and am deeply delighted to report that I lost no time eating the first fresh one I ever saw. Read about what that felt like here. Fresh or conserved, there are about 60 varieties of black and white truffles in Europe. Most of them, you want to watch out for — they are mildly pleasant at best, occasionally nasty and always pricey. The only truffles of earth-moving gastronomic interest are T. Melanosporum, the black truffle of Perigord that is never far away when you’re nearing the summit of French cuisine, and T. Magnatum, the white truffle of Alba that adds such mystery and wildness to the simple but luxurious ways of northern Italian cooking. Look hard at the photos, for it’s truffle season again, and by the end of this article, you will know how to choose and prepare one for yourself.
Civetta and Kiki
First, however, meet the four-footed finders.
There is no truffle dog in the sense of a breed dedicated to that pursuit. Any trainable dog will do. Looked at a certain way, truffling is but an exercise in advanced obedience training, since dogs are not naturally attracted to truffles but can be worked up into a passion to obey. Nevertheless, some breeds show a faster aptitude than others. Since the 1700’s, poodles have excelled at the training, as detailed by Doebel in his Jaegerpractica, 1746. Whatever its breed, the dog must be praised feelingly when it does find a truffle, rewarded not only with a display of love but with a bit of cheese. For much in the way of a natural orientation to the outdoors is taken from the truffle dog; to effect its unswerving focus on truffles, it has been systematically desensitized to squirrels and birds and other distractions that make up a full life for a hunting dog.
The Lagotto Romagnolo, a water dog that is a poodle cousin, is the truffle dog of choice in Piedmont and in the white truffle country of Tuscany, around San Miniato. A curly-haired, medium-sized dog of unusual avidity and good nature, the Lagotto is best embodied by Civetta (cheeVETTah), the current All-Italy champion truffle dog whose face may recall, to some dog lovers, that of an enraptured German Renaissance madonna.
A truffling pig like Kiki — the fourth pig owned by the famous Marthe Delon of Perigord to be so named — may only with care be compared to Civetta or any truffle dog. Pigs need no training to find truffles. In fact, humans probably owe the discovery of truffles to pigs rooting around for them, and almost certainly first started to go after them in imitation of pigs. Mme. Delon has gone on record saying that she rewards Kiki — actually, all her Kikis — with truffle-scented suppers, but never with the real thing. And soon, it will be time for Kiki IV to join her namesakes on the family table as ham — the ultimate fate of most truffling pigs.
There are truffle hunters in the South of France who prefer hunting with dogs to hunting with pigs — it’s really a personal matter, and either beast is regarded as hugely valuable. The female of the species is in both cases the better finder. And I have not read that at the end of a successful hunt it is necessary to make much of the sow, showering her with love and gratitude to keep her going. She has, after all, obeyed her instincts, not her master.
Is Now the Time for My Truffle?
Every year about this time, intense curiosity about the taste of a fresh truffle can propel a foodie into a zone of true bewilderment. How to tell whether you have trained your eye on the right kind? Who to buy it from? How to optimize your possession of it?
First and worst of all, it is necessary to confront the brute fact of cost: buying a truffle the size of a medium dog’s nose is no less expensive than buying a horribly good wine. We’ll break it out later, but think high two digits just to deal yourself in. Like that bottle of wine that lets you murmur, Oh! So this is what it is — oh!, like that sunset on Santorini, the true truffle is epiphanial, one of those things that leaves you not as you were before. If you believe this kind of experience is sometimes free and sometimes very costly, but always worth it, then you will enjoy taking your preparedness for the truffle up a notch by reading the interview below.
Meet Greg Troughton
Imagine my delight when right in my backyard I met a professional foodie, Greg Troughton, who knew more about truffles — and many other food items — than I did.
Greg grew up in New England, which he loves for its history, landscape and culinary offers. He has a BS in Biochemistry, and spent his years in school working in restaurants. After a stint in biotech, the food industry called to him, and he does often approach food from a scientific perspective. Five years in restaurant kitchens gave way to Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, where he concentrated on local produce and specialty imports. He has lived and traveled in Europe, and is currently at Whole Foods Market. In February, he begins work on an MBA, with a focus on the food industry, in particular the market for local producers and food supply chain management. He and his wife, Annie, live in Newton, MA, with their large mutt and shy cat. For the last couple of years Greg has been the go-to guy for truffles in my neighborhood, cheek by jowl to Harvard.
In talking with Greg, I wanted a fresh perspective on some of the truffle lore I’ve been gathering since the night of my first encounter with T. Melanosporum. At that long ago time, truffles tended to be paired with lobster — oh, it’s not wrong — or foie gras, or chopped into a sauce madere. Today there are truffle treatments both simpler and more interesting than those. And, as scarcity and price increase, there is more truffle fraud. So it’s especially important now to be an informed consumer who knows just how far a truffle will go. Although Greg and I do not touch on history’s most formidable truffle-fanciers, I’ve included visuals of eight of them, from Khufu to Proust.
ELATIA HARRIS: Provided you constructed the right dinner around a truffle, how would you describe the difference a truffle could make?
GREG TROUGHTON: At a base level truffles impart a complexity of flavor to food that is so rarely experienced in everyday eating. Add to that the long history of the hunt, the exotic terroir and the expense of truffles, and you stage an unusual element of excitement at dinner.
EH: Tell me a little more about terroir.
GT: An expression of place, this term has come to reflect not only the land on which the food was grown or raised, but the culture and history behind the food.
EH: Then you can taste terroir? Do certain truffles taste like where they’re from in that way?
GT: Magnatum pico, often known as the white “Alba” truffle, and Melanosporum, often known as the black “Perigord” truffle, are not exclusively gathered in those places. What is really important is that the truffle you are purchasing is of the true Latin variety. Northwest Spain, southern France, Italy — Magnatum and Melanosporum can be found all over these regions. “Alba” and “Perigord” have become marketing jargon.
EH: So, for example, the Tuscans and the Piedmontese warring over who has the true white truffle is kind of pointless if both regions produce T. Magnatum. I’ve read about Carlo Vittadini, the Milanese physician who classified truffles into almost 60 varieties in the mid-1800’s. When he called something a T. Magnatum, that’s a specific morphological type, and nothing to do with a market. How do you know you’re getting that?
GT: Find a distributor who understands that the quality lies in the variety, not just the locale, and you’re on the right track.
EH: Assuming you can examine a fresh truffle up close and personal before you buy it, what should you be looking for? Or, should I say, sniffing for? First white, then black…
GT: Freshness is key. I want to see my vender bring out an airtight sealed mason jar and I want to see the truffles wrapped in dry paper towel — not stored in rice. The truffles should be dry and free of many holes. Broken sides are fine — sometimes that is where the truffle was cut. White truffles should be creamy to slightly yellowish brown depending on the tree from under which they were harvested. Some of the most popular are oak, linden and chestnut. But most important is smell. Again, depending on the tree, each will have a distinct aroma. Naturally it takes a long time to distinguish among particular “trees,” but you should try to smell a few. As a vender I work with my suppliers to provide customers with a “best guess.” As a buyer, if a seller were to offer this information, it tells me they have done their homework. All white truffles are extremely heady — open a jar in a crowded store and you will sure get some stares. You’ll know then who’s a fan and who’s not. White truffles from under oak trees are more dominant in aroma, while the linden and chestnut are subtler. White truffles are more perishable than blacks and go soft faster. Again, freshness is key. Black truffles are more difficult to discern. Find those that are firm with few holes and give a pleasing aroma. I like my black truffles to smell complex — chocolate, spice, a slightly headiness. I steer clear of those that have a stringent or chemical smell. Make sure your vender lets you handle them and smell them right up to your nose — after all, if a four-legged beast can dig these up, I’m sure your nose isn’t the health hazard!
EH: If you’re not going to use the truffle the night of the day you buy it, how do you keep it in tip-top condition for a while?
GT: It should really be eaten ASAP, but it can last a while under the right conditions — I’ve seen truffles go 2 weeks. Store them in an airtight container, wrapped individually in paper towel, in the fridge. Change the towel every day or two. Add a few farm eggs to the container and because of the porous nature of eggshells you’ll get truffle-flavored eggs as a bonus.
EH: What are some of the best uses for the white truffle? Can it ever be overwhelmed?
GT: White truffles are generally kings when it comes to dominant flavors. Think eggs, simple soups, some game. My perfect truffle dinners, black or white, are big, winter food. Given their utter in-your-face aroma I prefer to pair white truffles with more subtle flavors — an egg course is great. Simply scrambled farm eggs with white truffle is divine. Soups of parsnip and potatoes are great pairings as well. White truffles also go well with foie gras — two big flavor champs battling it out I guess, but it’s a lot to handle. You either love it or hate it.
EH: I saw an Orson Welles look-alike in Rome having white truffles grated over a slab of rare roast beef. It seemed like a better idea to grate them over pasta — once I’d had that, I couldn’t think about anything else for a week. I also had them in a salad with a rather lemony vinaigrette — very tender lettuces, sauteed artichoke bottoms, and lots of chives. Astonishing.
GT: Food and the meal experience in particular are subjective to person, place, history and, importantly, to present company. The very idea that dinner will be served with such a rare, historical and pricey accoutrement lends a note of the astonishing to the event. A white truffle is going be astonishing whatever you grate it on.
EH: But simpler is better?
GT: I think so. And remember — don’t cook it. Just let whatever you’re adding it to warm it gently.
EH: Now what about the black truffle?
GT: While the white truffle is the billboard star, the black truffle plays the supporting role, but without that role the show wouldn’t be such a hit. It depends what you are in the mood for. I like black truffles paired with roasted meats, potatoes, game, some rich seafood like scallops. Black truffles can enhance the meatiness and roasted flavor of meats — they are aromatic and bold while at the same time complimentary to other flavors. Some of my acquaintances who are more intimately involved in the trade say that while they are less expensive, true connoisseurs prefer black truffles to white. You decide. On the plate, truffles are all nose — a steaming short rib with black truffles gives off an intoxicating, heady aroma. Black truffles shaved over sizzling meat is perfect.
EH: At L’Astrance, Pascal Barbot does a celery soup with black truffle puree and Parmesan foam. I haven’t tried making foam yet. And Alain Passard does slow-poached Breton lobster with sauce vin jaune, smoked potatoes and shaved black truffles. But I’m getting carried away.
GT: Would you have wanted those things your first time with a truffle?
EH: Um, no. And the emphasis here is on what you could make with truffles for yourself and your friends that wouldn’t be so complex you couldn’t have fun, too. As long as we’re menu-planning, are there some wine recommendations for dishes involving truffles? Let’s talk about this on the plane of the ideal, and then on the plane of the approachable, OK?
GT: I have a very basic approach here — if it grows together it goes together. Get wines from the region and make them dish-appropriate. White truffles are generally from Piedmont, so think big — like Barolo. With black truffles, being sourced from France to North west Spain, I usually like burgundy and some Rhone wines. Some Bordeaux can over do it with the truffles. Ask your truffle vender where these particular truffle come from. Can they tell you, or did they come from a distributor? This would mean they’ve been out of the ground longer and are less fresh. Because I buy directly from one family, they can tell me per delivery where they sourced the truffles. With some vagueness that I won’t ever understand — like I can actually quit my job and responsibilities and go to Europe to pillage their secret site. Then, take this information to your trusted wine guru and get a wine from the same region.
EH: I’ve seen truffle-slicers in restaurants in Italy — if you can’t get your hands on one of those, what should you do? And how should you do it?
GT: Truffles should be sliced ultra-paper-thin. If you try it with a knife and get thick pieces you are wasting money. Truffle slicers are nice, but expensive and singular in their use. I use a Japanese mandolin, the same tool with an adjustable blade that you use to slice potatoes thin. They are cheap, good all around tools that should be found in any kitchen supply store. Just get simple one with a sharp adjustable blade. You don’t need 20 attachments.
EH: I see truffles priced by the ounce. How far does an ounce of truffles go — used in some of the ways we’ve been discussing?
GT: An ounce goes a very long way. You could truffle one course for 10-12 friends with a whole ounce. My advice is to get 4-6 friends and truffle two courses. Better yet, store the truffle for a day with eggs and get three courses out of it. You can spend only $75 to $100 and get the real thing for a bunch of people.
EH: Let’s talk about some of the considerations that influence price.
GT: My take here is that given all the recent press, the food world producers have seen a real potential in a growing market of young foodies. This has been great for artisan producers — it has allowed small vineyards to grow and market their products, it has supported long-standing traditions of wine making and truffle hunting. But it does have its down side. On the truffle end, the introduction of inoculated trees to natural habitats, currently supporting dwindling supplies of Melanosporum and Magnatum pico has led to new crossbreeds of truffles that out-compete for nutrients and space. So the truffle market has been flooded with inferior grade truffles that are identical in appearance Melanosporum and Magnatum pico being passed off as such to unknowing consumers looking to experience truffles at a slightly lesser cost. Who am I to judge when it comes to spending a premium for, let’s face it, a rather ugly looking mushroom rooted by a pig or dog under some tree in a far away country? But, as with champagne and caviar, I advocate the less is more strategy — you don’t need to have every course truffled. Get the real thing once in a season on one dish. You can get other varieties of truffles that grow naturally in season during the summer — they are lighter in aroma and simpler in complexity of flavor. As the saying goes, they are what they are. My personal tastes for truffles revolve around winter nights, red wine, fireplaces, good friends, slowly simmered cuts of meat, and potatoes. I’m not a summer truffle guy. So I get the real thing when I can, usually once a year. Best to get it from someone you trust — at $1600-$3200 a pound, mistakes are not allowed! Opt to cook at home instead of going out — you’ll see what you’ve been missing, and you’re sure to come out on top.
EH: Would your life be diminished if you didn’t know the taste of these things?
GT: No, it would not. It would just be different. My grandparents have lived long, rich lives, and have never tasted such things and probably never will, but I’d be eternally happy to experience the fulfillment and pleasures that they have enjoyed. That said, food is my thing. I make my living in the industry and I enjoy it after work — it’s what gets me up in the morning. So, if I didn’t know the taste of true truffles, caviar, foie gras, real French Brie, fresh bread, New England corn, local strawberries and on an on, I’d be doing my career and my life’s journey a disservice. While many of these items are expensive, they don’t have to be exclusive to the wealthy. As an example, when I got out of professional cooking, after about a year or so, I got a phone call from my old chef asking me if I’d be willing to do a shift that night for a meat cook who had to leave for a personal matter. Anyone who has worked in a high end restaurant knows that working the busy station on the line during a Saturday night is hard enough, but after a year out of the business, that’s plain stupid. Overcooking a VIP steak and having the entire service come to a crashing halt doesn’t make you a popular guy, especially when you’ve abandoned the profession for greener pastures. With this in mind I was about to decline the offer when the chef made it a bit more enticing — I wouldn’t be getting paid in dollars, but my 10 hours of backbreaking, under-appreciated, adrenaline-addled, high heat cooking would be rewarded with a freshly dug 1 oz white truffle. I was in that kitchen setting up my station in 20 minutes. The point is — make some friends in the food industry, take some wine and cheese classes. Bring a six-pack to your local gourmet food guys — they will remember you and maybe, just maybe let you in on the good stuff.
EH: Great! I’m waiting a few weeks till T. Melanosporum is here, however. That’ll give me some time to plan. Also, I don’t want people turning me down, and getting the right 6 people on any given night is worse than air traffic control. What should I be thinking when I go shopping?
GT: Know what you want, how much you want to spend and what dishes you will be serving. Talk with your local grocer, be it at a large store or a small gourmet operation. Trust is key and trust comes with a personal relationship. In my time I have seen very few if any intentional rip offs — just people who don’t necessarily have all the facts. Watch how they store the truffles — how many do they have? Do they “always” have them? That’s a bad sign, because it usually means extra inventory. Stay away from mail order — would you mail order fresh fish? A personal, trusting relationship with your grocer is the key to getting any quality product.
EH: OK, let’s make it happen. Thanks!
WEB RESOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE
New York Times RSS feed on truffles
Never miss another world-historical truffle story again. Register with NYT.com (free), key “truffles” into the search box. The topic page will come up, with compendious news about truffles, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times. Go to the bottom right, where you will be invited to click on the truffle feed. Do so, and monitor developments from your homepage or reader.
Food blogger extraordinaire Pim of Chez Pim goes to Perigord
Pim encounters the Truffle Don in Italy
My earlier 3QD truffle article, “Shrooming in Late Capitalism: The Way of the Truffle”
Cooking Vacations in France, with Truffles
Cooking with Friends
US Truffle Venders I Personally Know and Trust
Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge and Boston, MA and Essex Street, NYC)
Whole Foods (locations throughout USA)