All truffles are not created equal
What do you know about truffles? It’s a question I was forced to ask myself last May. Truffles are everywhere these days, but most people barely know a thing about them. Here’s what I knew. That I was in Piedmont, where truffles are grown, and that the restaurant I was looking at was best in town. So when I saw the six-course truffle tasting menu advertised outside, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Where better to eat truffles? It wasn’t so much where that was the problem, but when.
Read on for a quick masterclass in truffles starting with 10 key facts, five truffle varieties you should know, and the rest of my Piedmont truffle tasting story.
10 Facts About Truffles
1. A truffle is the fruiting body of a fungus, which grows underground in close association with tree roots. There are hundreds of truffle varieties, but the most commonly harvested for gourmet purposes belong to the Tuber family.
2. Truffles are seasonal, with different annual harvesting times typically lasting 3 months. As we head into March, we actually say goodbye to the very best truffles all the way until October! Many restaurants feature special truffle menus during the key harvesting months when the best truffles are available to buy and consume.
3. 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, primarily oak and hazelnut but also beech, birch, poplar and hornbeam. These conditions impact their availability, shape, colour, taste and aroma, which determine their value.
4. 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.
5. Truffles are highly perishable and 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 typically shaved over your plate at the table, in order to get the fullness of flavour and aroma.
6. The two most famous and expensive types of truffles are the White Alba and Black Perigord. So named after their location of origin in Piedmont, Italy and Dordogne, France, also known as white and black diamonds. My suggestion to best enjoy these rare truffles would be to order a dish with white Alba at an Italian restaurant in October and November, and likewise ask for the black Perigord truffle at a French restaurant in January or February, which is when these truffles are at their peak.
7. Cheaper, more common truffles, such as the summer truffle, also have their place in the kitchen. Many chefs prefer the less intense aroma and flavour of a summer truffle for already flavourful dishes, such as beef tataki. The better (aromatic, tasteful, rare) the truffle, the simpler it is served, for example, shaved over an egg or plain pasta.
8. Also like wine, there is a New World truffle movement, referring to truffles grown outside of Europe, in the US and below the equator (in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina), to help supply truffles when European ones 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, intensely aromatic and deliciously tasting 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.
Buyer beware, there are a number of other white truffle varieties, such as the Tartufo Bianchetto or Marzuolo, which are not as aromatic and nowhere near as valuable as the white Alba truffle, but 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 are harvested from late May through October.
Burgundy Truffle, Tuber Uncinatum: Belonging to the Tuber Aestivum family, but with a more pleasing, hazelnut aroma. It is well known in France as the Burgundy truffle, available from September to late December.
Photo Credits: Body Images: melissas.com Feature Image: Tartufi and Friends, London
Can You Identify These Truffles Now?
My Truffle Story
Last May I traveled to Piemonte and could not wait to tuck into some authentic Italian truffles! At that time I had heard about the white Alba and read that harvesting season would be later in the year. But thought maybe there would be some left over from last year’s harvest, or at least some other tasty truffles to try.
On our first night, we walked into the little town of Neive and stumbled across a fine dining restaurant (Donna Selvatica, #1 on TripAdvisor!) with a “truffle tasting menu” advertised outside. This was exactly what we had come for. We went in, sat down, and didn’t need to see the menu. Two truffle menus, please!
Six courses were served, one after the other, each time with the same truffle freshly shaved at our table. It was not too dissimilar from cardboard shavings. There was no smell. No wondrous truffle aroma, and absolutely no flavour. What in the devil was going on?
While we should have just asked the restaurant, we weren’t in the mood to discuss it or complain. Normally we would have without hesitation, but we had ordered such a fantastic bottle of Barbaresco wine and were admiring this epic sunset that we had a front row table in front of, that we didn’t want anything to take us away from enjoying that moment.
But the first thing I did when we got back to the hotel was to google truffles like a mad woman. That’s when I found it. The summer truffle. A black skinned, white flesh (gleba!) truffle. The most common, the least aromatic. Sacre bleu!
I had never heard of such a thing before. I had always relied on restaurants to suggest good truffles during truffle season that I hadn’t even realised that there was such a thing as an odourless, tasteless truffle, let alone that a top Italian restaurant would serve it on a special truffle menu in the truffle capital of the world!