What the truffle?
What do you know about truffles? Most people don’t know much at all. For example, did you know that dogs are used instead of pigs in truffle hunting because it is much safer? Oh yes, it is far easier to remove a truffle from a dog’s mouth than from a pig. In fact, the practice of using pigs was stopped because too many truffle hunters lost their fingers trying to remove truffles from a pig’s snout! If you want to know more about truffles (and impress your dinner guests), read on!
10 Key Facts About Truffles
1. Truffles are technically mushrooms
Truffles are the fruiting body of fungus that grows underground in close association with tree roots. Because they do not grow above ground, there is often confusion over whether they are mushrooms. Despite some valid arguments that they are not, technically, they are.
2. There are hundreds of truffle varieties
However, the most commonly harvested for gourmet purposes belong to the Tuber family.
3. Truffles are seasonal
They also have different annual harvesting times, each typically lasting 3 months. Look out for special truffle menus in French and Italian restaurants during the key harvesting months (read more: Don’t Miss Out on Europe’s Truffle Season).
4. They are also regional, with some areas producing better truffles than others
Truffles are very hard to farm, requiring specific soil conditions and types of trees to thrive under. These are primarily oak and hazelnut but also beech, birch, poplar and hornbeam. The conditions impact their availability, shape, colour, taste and aroma, which determines their value.
5. Many truffles are known by their location of origin, rather than their technical name
Although if you’re interested in a bit of technical jargon, I’ll have you know that the skin or outside of a truffle is called the peridium, and its flesh is known as the gleba.
6. Truffles are highly perishable
In fact, they begin losing their aroma and flavour from the very moment they are harvested. Some of the best truffles must be eaten within 7 days of harvesting, while others last a little bit longer. This is also why truffles are shaved over your plate, to give the fullest flavour and aroma.
7. White Alba and Black Perigord are the two most famous types of truffles
Named after their location of origin in Piedmont, Italy and Dordogne, France, they are also the most expensive, thus known as white and black diamonds.
8. Like wine, there is a New World truffle movement
Referring to truffles grown outside of Europe, in the US and below the equator, to help supply when European truffles are out of season.
9. Growing truffles from scratch is a risky, long-term investment
It takes 10-20 years for a tree that has been inoculated with truffle spores to produce any truffles, which even then isn’t guaranteed. Many truffle forests in France were actually destroyed during World War II, which limited the supply of truffles, making them so rare and expensive today. But over the last 30 odd years, new truffle forests have been planted, which should help increase the supply in a few years time.
10. Most truffle oils, a common and convenient substitute for truffles, actually contain no truffles at all
It is typically just olive oil artificially flavoured with the synthetic agent 2,4-dithiapentane. A common dirty trick is to pour this truffle oil over a dish in combination with a cheap, odourless truffle in order to trick the client into thinking he is eating a good truffle.
5 Key Types of Truffles
White Alba Truffle, Tuber Magnatum:
The most expensive, rare, and aromatic truffle is the white truffle from Alba in Piedmont, Italy. Head down to the town of Alba for their world famous White Truffle Fair during harvest season for an unmissable experience.
Harvest is from October to December, reaching their peak in October and November. To ensure quality, it is actually illegal to sell them before September.
There are a number of other white truffle varieties, such as the Tartufo Bianchetto or Marzuolo, which are similar in appearance. Fortunately, these are harvested from February to April, so if you know your truffle harvest times, you won’t confuse them with the elusive white diamond.
Black Truffle, Tuber Melanosporum:
This type of black truffle, which includes the Perigord of France and the Dolce di Norcia of Italy, is the world’s best-known type of truffle. Depending on the region, it is typically harvested from mid-November to mid-March. The Black Perigord is the second-most valuable truffle species after the white Alba, and reaches its peak in January and February.
Black Winter Truffle, Tuber Brumale:
Harvested in Spain from January to March, it is available at the same time as the Tuber Melanosporum, making it difficult for a restaurant customer to tell which is which. Those with a keen sense of smell may be able to tell, while there are also some subtle colour and appearance differences. Alternatively, ask your waiter.
Black Summer Truffle, Tuber Aestivum:
This is the most commonly available type of truffle. It is cheaper, sometimes drastically less aromatic, and tastes more like a porcini mushroom than a truffle. They are at their best in July, but harvest is from late May through October.
Burgundy Truffle, Tuber Uncinatum:
Belonging to the Tuber Aestivum family, but with a more pleasing, hazelnut aroma. Known in France as the Burgundy truffle, it is available from September to late December.
Photo Credits: Body Images: melissas.com Feature Image: Tartufi and Friends, London
Can You Identify These Truffles Now?