IF you have never bought truffles because, frankly, you do not know how to begin and you are afraid you will get skunked, well, you are not alone. Serious home cooks and even food pros are bamboozled all the time. It’s actually pretty difficult and always expensive to attain good-quality truffles, especially for retail customers. In fact, acquiring truffles is so fraught with potential fraud that you might wonder whether the dining experience is worth the financial risk.
Of course, it’s that marvelous odor that makes truffles so desirable. What a shame, then, that many people complain of having paid a fortune for truffles only to feel like ninnies because the taste just didn’t live up to the hype. But that’s not necessarily the fault of the consumer. When it comes to truffles, it pays to know a few facts about the weird biology and the sometimes (O.K., often) duplicitous nature of the truffle business.
Truffles are mushrooms that have evolved to grow underground. When the spores of the truffle mature, the fungus produces aromatic compounds that attract animals. The animals dig up the truffle, and the truffle spores become dispersed. The truffles we prefer to eat have evolved to attract swine (hence the tradition of putting pigs to work hunting them). The truth is, the truffle itself doesn’t taste like much. It is the gas that gives truffles their flavor.
My cousin Mario, a retired barber and white truffle hunter, spends every morning during the fall months trespassing all over the chilly little valley in Tuscany where he lives, directing his feisty dog to sniff under this scrubby willow or that. When she smells a truffle, she starts digging furiously, and Mario has to yank her aside to retrieve what looks, rather disappointingly, like something the dog deposited, rather than unearthed.
But the smell! It’s as if a sulfuric love bomb went off. If you could roll in the smell, you would. For lunch, his wife, Maria, serves the little truffles Mario won’t be able to sell, ground with butter and black pepper and spread on a cracker, and then again, shaved over soft, eggy tagliatelle. On the train ride back to Florence, I reek of truffles, which elicits knowledgeable smiles and nods from my fellow commuters.
Lots of language has been used to describe the truffle flavor: mold, garlic, soil, onions without heat, meat, sweet body odor — but those descriptors are beside the point. Truffles are irresistible because their aroma is composed of chemicals that mimic mammalian reproductive pheromones. Eating, even sniffing, a truffle is a bit like being drugged. (And sorry, it doesn’t make you randy.)
They are expensive because they are difficult to grow, hard to find in the wild, in decline because of climate change and habitat loss, and in high demand. There are lots of species, but the most valuable ones are powerfully flavorful: the Tuber magnatum pico, the Italian white truffle, and the Tuber melanosporum, the Périgord truffle. The Périgords are in season now (the white truffles are almost done), with sales peaking around the holidays. Prices fluctuate, but this year white truffles retailed for up to $350 an ounce — about what you would need to garnish two entrees — and Périgords about $180.
Unfortunately, consumers may find their pricey purchases more blah than blow-me-away. That’s usually because the truffle is past its prime and no longer producing the aroma from which its flavor is derived.
In the case of European truffles, that gas starts to dissipate after about four days (it’s more or less time for other truffles). So from Day 5 on, you may be paying the same for that truffle, but you’re getting less and less of its flavor.
Domestic truffles are primarily harvested for the local market and mostly on the West Coast. There are a few species of Oregon truffles (white, black, and brown), and the Pecan truffle, which is found in the southern and eastern half of the United States. They are all tasty.
There are really only two ways to enjoy fresh European truffles: go where they come from (like Italy’s Alba truffle fair in October and November, or the Lalbenque truffle market in southwest France in December and January), or buy one that you can see and smell before you pay for it. Try a place like Buon Italia in the Chelsea Market, where truffles are on display. You can also order truffles from shops like Dean & DeLuca and Citarella, and if all goes well, your truffle will arrive in a pretty fresh state.
“Everybody tries to give good product,” said Rosario Safina of daRosario, a truffle purveyor, “but it’s hard. There’s just not a lot out there.” Most truffle dealers do their business with restaurants, not with retail customers, so you’re probably best off ordering fresh truffles at a restaurant. Reputable establishments like Daniel and Del Posto go to great lengths to purchase the best they can find.
Another reason a truffle or truffle product may fall short is because you didn’t actually purchase the species of truffle that you thought you were purchasing. Of the hundreds of species described (there’s even a psychoactive truffle), about 10 have culinary value, and they vary in flavor and intensity. Many producers label their truffle products with the Latin binomials (usually in minuscule print), so check to see what species of truffle is in your can or butter or pâté. Some definitely taste better than others. And if a label doesn’t list the species, buyer, beware. Here’s a taxonomic cheat sheet:
Tuber magnatum, the white truffle: most expensive, powerfully tasty
Consumers are often misled because many truffle products are not as advertised. Truffles are sold buried in salt, rice and flour — all in the expectation that those mediums will absorb and retain the elusive truffle aroma. But you’ll often find the truffle has off-gassed and lost its flavor, and when the truffle aroma-soaked medium hits the heat, those volatile aromatics are rendered inert and the flavor disappears. When those products do hold up their truffle flavor, it’s probably because the truffle-infused medium is augmented with a chemical additive.
Most if not all truffle oils, butters and salts used as garnishes are flavored with bis(methylthio)methane, among other chemicals. There may be some bits of dried truffle in the jar, but they aren’t lending any flavor. Look for labels listing truffle “aroma,” “flavor” and “essence” as an ingredient. The terms refer to the chemicals.
Most truffle oils shouldn’t cost more than the oil itself: one teaspoon of “truffle aroma,” the amount typically used in an eight-ounce bottle of white truffle oil (black truffle oil is made with a lesser quantity of the same chemical) costs about 40 cents. There are producers who claim their truffle oils are natural — Mr. Safina showed me his organic certificates — but the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t police truffle products, so there’s no simple way of knowing what’s in the bottle. I don’t have a problem with food additives; I just don’t want to overpay for them. So when I do use truffle oil (to flavor popcorn), I buy the cheap stuff.
Buying truffles and truffle products is a risky business. But good compromises can be made. Lately I’ve scratched my truffle itch with D’Artagnan’s canned summer truffle peelings. They don’t have the punch and pizazz of white truffles or Périgords, but they have a lovely woodsy flavor. The price is expensive but not impossible, about $100 a can. I combine them with rich homemade porcini butter to make, as my teenage son would say, swag canapés. And in canapés for a holiday crowd of 50 or more, the price makes more sense. Be warned, however: once opened, the truffles turn quickly, so eat them within a day or two.