The expensive black truffle is haute cuisine’s best friend. French gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called the truffle ‘the diamond of the kitchen’. Edible truffles are a favourite food in French, Italian, Croatian, Slovene, Ottoman, Middle Eastern and Spanish cuisine, as well as in international haute cuisine. It belongs to the same family of tubers as the Italian white Alba truffle, which is the most expensive truffle.
A truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus, predominantly one of the many species known as Tubers. In addition to tuber, over a hundred other fungi are classified as ‘truffles’.
Guide and more information and tips on buying truffle and truffle products on line here.
Where can you find black truffles?
Truffles are cultivated by truffle growers and are also harvested from natural habitats. Truffles are usually found in close association with tree roots. Spore dispersal is accomplished through animals that eat fungi.
France accounts for some 45% of the world production of black truffles, Spain for 35% and Italy for 20%. Smaller amounts are produced in Slovenia, Croatia, and the Australian states of Tasmania and Western Australia. In 2005, black truffles were also found in Serbia.
About 80% of the French production comes from southeast France. You can find it in the upper Provence (départements of Vaucluse and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), part of Dauphiné (département of Drôme), and part of Languedoc (département of Gard). 20% of the production comes from southwest France: Quercy (département of Lot) and Périgord.
All close to where I live so each year I visit some of the many truffle markets. The largest truffle market in France (and probably also in the world) is at Richerenches in Vaucluse. The largest truffle market in southwest France is at Lalbenque in Quercy. These markets are busiest in the month of January, when the black truffles have their highest perfume.
There are hundreds kinds of truffles
Production has considerably diminished during the 20th century, dropping to around 20 metric tonnes per year, with peaks at around 46 tonnes in the best years. By comparison, in 1937, France produced around 1,000 metric tonnes of black truffles.
Some of the truffle species are costly and therefore truffles are one of the most expensive foods in the world. There is a big seasonal price difference and where – in this case – French truffles come from, $250 per pound for summer black truffles; $350 per pound for Burgundy, which grow from September through February; $800 per pound for winter black, which grow from November through March.
Because of their high price and their pungent aroma, cook us truffles sparingly. You can also buy them commercially as fresh produce or preserved, typically in a light brine.
Use in haute cuisine and truffle recipes
The volatile aromas dissipate quicker when you heat truffles. So generally the best way is to serve truffles raw and shaved over warm, simple foods, like buttered pasta or eggs. This will highlight their flavor. You can also inert thin truffle slices into meats, under the skins of roasted fowl, in foie gras preparations, in pâtés, or in stuffings. Some specialty cheeses contain truffles as well. You can also use truffles for producing truffle salt and truffle honey.
While in the past chefs used to peel truffles, in modern times, most restaurants brush the truffle carefully and shave it or dice it with the skin on so as to make the most of the valuable ingredient. Some restaurants stamp out circular discs of truffle flesh and use the skins for sauces.
If you are looking for a a lower-cost and convenient substitute for truffles you can use truffle oil to provide flavouring, or to enhance the flavour and aroma of truffles in cooking.
Because a greater variety of aromatic molecules in truffles are soluble in alcohol, it can be used to carry a more complex and accurate truffle flavour than oil without the need for synthetic flavourings. Although used as a spirit in its own right and mixed in a range of cocktails, truffle-flavored alcohol is also used by chefs to flavour dishes.
Truffle oil made by boiling truffles in olive oil has been used for this purpose since at least 1756. Truffle oil is used in kitchens to add the flavor and aroma of truffles to a dish. Like pasta, pizzas, salads, mashed potatoes and eggs. Truffle oil is available in all seasons and is significantly more affordable compared to fresh truffles.
Truffle oil can be produced using any oil. High-quality and the more expensive versions use extra virgin olive oil. However, some specialists prefer more neutral flavorless oils such as canola or grapeseed oil. Genuine truffle oils are made with the residue of truffles collected or prepared for sale. Real truffle oils nearly always include a piece or pieces of truffle at the bottom of the bottle.
Real truffle oil is frequently used to train truffle-hunting dogs and pigs. Modern Italians often use a strufion, a ball of rags scented with truffle oil.
Manufacturing black truffle oil
Since black truffle is a very seasonal product, how can you give your favourite dishes the incomparable black truffle aroma all year round? The answer is with a litte drop of black truffle oil.
At the beginning of this year the black truffle harvesting season is in full swing. Everywhere in the beautiful regions of southern France – in the Périgord and Vaucluse – ‘sniffer’ dogs and specialists are busy finding the precious tubers in the forests (and now also vineyards) to unearth this true culinary treasure.
The best and rarest black truffles of excellent quality are immediately literally ‘snatched’ from the regional markets (like in Richerenches) just before they open by Michelin restaurants and luxury gourmet stores before reaching the tables of the luckiest. For the other delicate palates sensitive to the subtle aromas of the black truffle, or the people who can less afford it, buying black truffle oil in a grocery store or online is a good alternative.
Like all oil flavoured with condiments, black truffle oil can be prepared very easily and simply by macerating a truffle or an extract of it. It is a century-old technique, in which the oil plays the role of an organic solvent. The process consists in extracting the main aromas.
All cooking oils are suitable: from grape seed oil to sunflower oil (more neutral), to rapeseed oil. Many of the best genuine truffle oils are manufactured with high-quality organic extra virgin olive oil. But specialist say neutral oils made from grape seeds or sunflowers is better.
Most ‘truffle oils’ never saw a truffle near them
There is a lot of ‘truffle oil’ on the market that actually has not been made from or with truffles. It therefore has become very controversial as a flavoring ingredient. Nearly all truffle oil is produced with a synthetic (chemical) flavor compound, and may lack the complex flavors and aromas of fresh truffles. It is called 2,4-dithiapentane.
Unfortunately there are no regulations regarding the labeling of 2,4-dithiapentane . But if you see words like ‘truffle aroma‘, ‘truffle flavor‘, ‘truffle concentrate‘ you can be pretty sure no truffle was used.
In the United States, however, the synthetic ingredient can even be called ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ as long as the components meet the federal requirements for those terms! Which for me is unbelievable.
Critics of truffle oil and other truffle products
On Wikipedia I found a great collection of opinions of food critics and chefs on the use of truffle oil (the synthetic version especially). I have made a short summary with some of the better quotes.
- Chef Daniel Patterson in a New York Times opinion piece: “[truffle oil’s] one-dimensional flavor is also changing common understanding of how a truffle should taste.”
- Anthony Bourdain: “Let it be stated here, unto forever and eternity, truffle oil is not food.” And another one from him: “[truffle oil is the] tomato ketchup of the middle class”.
- Celebrity chef Martha Stewart on Reddit: “I think truffle oil is one of the few ingredients that doesn’t belong in anyone’s kitchen. It’s ruinous of most recipes.”
- Restaurateur Joe Bastianich in Huffington Post: “It’s made by perfumists. It’s garbage olive oil with perfume added to it, and it’s very difficult to digest. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for New Yorkers. It’s bad for the American people. So, stop it.”
- Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay on YouTube: “one of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to [a] chef.”
So as long as you stick to fresh truffles and make sure the truffle oil is made with genuine truffles and contains no (other) synthetic compounds, you are in for one of the most tasty dishes in the world. Bon appetit!