What is Truffle and How Do You Use It?

Italian White Truffle, Piedmont Truffle, Italian Truffle, Grey Truffle FR: Truffe des magnats, Truffe Piemontaise GER: Piemontesiche Truffel IT: Tartufo bianco (d’Alba)

BOT: Tuber magnatum (tycoon’s truffle)

Black, French or Perigord Truffle

FR: Rabasse (Provence), Truffe de France, Truffe des gourmets, Truffe du Perigord, Truffe noir, Truffe vraie

BOT: Choiromyces meandriformis

Hart’s Truffle

BOT: Elaphomyces granulatus

Truffles are the underground fruit of some fungi; to be unscientific, they are like subterranean puff balls growing one or two feet down and in the vicinity of trees or herbs particular to the kind of truffle in question. Because of this association, truffles cannot be cultivated as we cultivate mushrooms. The best that can be done is to introduce truffles into plantations of trees where they have not grown before.

Because truffles are entirely underground, they have to be found by smell, by dogs or pigs. Pigs are less favoured, in part because they are wayward creatures and will root for other delicacies besides truffles, but most of all because they gobble up the truffles if the owner is not quick enough to get there first. Dogs on the other hand are obedient, have a keen nose and do not like eating truffles. They find them through no natural inclination, but only because they have been trained and are rewarded with pieces of biscuit carried by the truffle hunter in his pocket. Truffle dogs are usually intelligent mongrels who obviously enjoy the sport, and good ‘truffle hounds’ are worth hundreds of pounds. When a dog has found a truffle, he begins frantically digging and is then helped by the truffle hunter, who uses a small pick. So powerful is the aroma that, once digging has proceeded a little way, it is usually possible for the truffle hunter to smell the truffle himself.

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The two best kinds of truffle are the Italian white truffle and the French black or Perigord truffle. These are two of the most expensive foods known to man. As the flavour varies greatly according to locality, the truffles from some regions are very much more expensive than from others, so poor truffles are frequently brought into the markets of the best areas in order to deceive.

There is an unending dispute between the French and Italians as to which is the better truffle, the white or the black. To express an opinion in this matter is a certain way to get a black eye. The famous French gastronome Brillat-Savarin did, apparently, on one occasion say that he considered the white Piedmont truffle superior. He must have been a brave man. Perhaps it is for this reason that many Italians consider him the ‘unquestioned arbiter in materia gastronomica’. There is only one way to decide this argument: start a gastronomic holiday in Piedmont in November and then proceed to Perigeux (if you have any money left) as the season for black truffles conveniently starts after the white is over.

The Italian white truffle centre is Alba, about forty miles south-east of Turin, but it is found in the foothills of the ranges that border the south side of the Lombardy plain and the north side of the Apennines as far south as Modena. It is also found in France and former Yugoslavia. The season begins in October with a ‘truffle fair’ in Alba and extends onwards into the winter, until snow usually puts an end to the sport.

The truffles are located by the trained dogs, usually near the edge of a field which has suitable hedge trees, but I once saw a big one accidentally ploughed up. So valuable are white truffles that great secrecy is observed by the hunters. Truffle maps are passed from father to son or bequeathed as potential riches, and the digging is often done at dead of night, a damp time when the dogs can certainly smell better and when the hunters can search the special places, unobserved by rivals.

At the beginning of the season, the price of truffles in Alba may start at as much as two thousand pounds per pound – about two hundred dollars for a fungus the size of a walnut.

The white truffle looks like a chalky-yellow misshapen new potato and is usually about that size, although giant specimens are occasionally found. The perfume is so strong that a single specimen brought into the kitchen will reach the sleepy gastronome in his bedroom up four flights of stairs and cause him to salivate. The smell is unique, quite unlike that of other fungus. Some say it is reminiscent of garlic, others that it is more like the rich smell of escaping gas. In fact, the perfume cannot be accurately described, but is delicious. As for the taste, this is not the important factor, but it is slightly peppery.

Italian white truffles are usually sliced raw directly onto the dish when it comes to table. A special slicer that produces razor-thin sections is used. The truffle’s function is to perfume risotto, pate, salads, meat dishes and that rather sickening Piedmont speciality called bagna cauda (see Anchovies). Cheese ‘fundua’ is another dish, to which white truffles are added in Piedmont.

Old recipes for cooking white truffles date back to the Romans, but besides being impossibly expensive in these days, such recipes ignore the fact that white truffles have more perfume than flavour and are far better raw than cooked.

Because the price is so high, and truffles attach their perfume to anything they are kept with (they will penetrate and flavour an egg overnight) it is common to pass off inferior Yugoslav truffles, puffballs, (and even potatoes) in the market. There are shops in Italy which will send truffles by air mail, anywhere. One small one is quite enough for a party. White truffles are also canned, but in the process there is a great loss of aroma and the result is probably not worth the high price.

The french or black truffle centre is Perigeux, a town some eighty-five miles north-east of Bordeaux, on the western edge of the Massif Central; but black truffles are also found locally all round the southern foothills of the Massif, and up the Rhone valley in the hills on either side as far as Burgundy. They are also found in Italy and in other parts of southern Europe. However, truffles from other parts of France and Italy are less delicate than those from Perigord. The season is from

November to March.

The black truffle is coal black and covered with small knobs, which makes it difficult to clean. It is more plentiful than the white and the annual production in France alone, though less than it used to be, runs into millions of pounds. Like the white truffle, it has a strong perfume and almost no taste. It can be eaten raw, but (unlike the white) it is more frequently eaten cooked. The best-known use of truffles is, of course, in pate, but there are many other mouth-watering ways of cooking them in France, of which a good selection can be found in the Larousse Gastronomique. Black truffles and even the peelings (since black truffles are also expensive) are available in cans. It may be that there are some rare brands which retain the aroma of the fresh fungus, but in most cases canned truffles are only fit to be used for the sake of appearances. Moreover, from personal observation, I know that the truffles that go into the can are usually of poor quality or even of other inferior black species, of which vast quantities, looking like sacks of coal, are gathered for the commercial pate and sausage industry.

The summer truffle is a common European truffle, one of the few also found in England, particularly at the edge of beechwoods on chalk downs. At one time they were collected in the south of England and, as with other types of truffle, dogs were used to find them Any dog with a good nose can be trained for this purpose by the usual find and reward technique, but, obviously, if the dog is to know the smell of what it is expected to find, you cannot train a dog without first securing a truffle of the species. Thus, it is difficult to restart truffle hunting once it has died out.

The summer truffle is black with large pyramidal warts. The inside is usually brown with yellowish white veins. The aroma is much less than the Piedmont or Perigord truffles and tends to vanish altogether when it is cooked. It can be found in late summer or autunm and is from one to four inches in diameter. Although it is nothing more than a good edible fungus, it has plenty of snob value, due to its noble relatives.

The winter truffle is smaller and is also found in England as well as on the Continent. In many people’s opinion it comes next in excellence after the Perigord truffle. It grows in the same woods as the summer truffle, but is found later in the season (November and December). The warts on the surface are smaller, the colour of the flesh is black or violet-brown when ripe, and it is veined. The aroma is much more powerful than that of the summer truffle, but becomes unpleasant when the truffle is old.

Other species of truffle are also edible and are used on the Continent, Tuber mesentericum, Tuber macrosporum, and Tuber borchii being examples of these. They are similar to inferior forms already described and are all true truffles. They possibly go into tins.

The terfezias are fungi related to the truffles and to be distinguished from them only by botanists. They grow to some extent in southern Europe, but are very plentiful in North Africa and the Middle East, where travellers are likely to come across them They are abundant in the Syrian desert, in places like Palmyra and also in the Libyan desert. Although usually pale in colour, dark varieties are also found and these are regarded as superior. They are somewhat tasteless when compared with the true truffles, but are still excellent when cooked in local ways or eaten raw as salad. Visitors to Beirut or Damascus should try them. They are easy to find as they grow near the surface and cause a slight mound in the sand which gives away their presence. They are also sold in local markets.

The pig truffle should not be called the ‘white truffle’ because it may be confused with the Italian white truffle. Also, it is not a true truffle, but as it has a strong perfume, gastronomically it may be classified as one of them It grows on the European continent and in England, usually under oak trees and often only half buried in the ground. Being white or creamy brown, it is very easily seen, and may be found without a dog. The size is anything from a golf ball to a child’s football. It is like an irregular potato, with flesh creamy or light brown and can be eaten raw, cut in slices, used as a flavouring or dried. It is one of the better truffle-like mushrooms of Europe.

In general, all truly underground tuber-shaped fungi are edible unless they are foul smelling (e.g. species of Rhizopogon). A very few species, e.g. Choiromyces terfezioides and Balsamia vulgaris, contain an acrid substance which will cause vomiting. They taste nasty, but none of them is lethal. hart’s truffle is a very common, tiny, European, truffle-like fungus found shallowly underground, often under moss, in forests in wintertime. The outside is brown and covered in minute warts, giving it a granulated appearance. The flesh is pink, later turning dark brown, and it has a strong smell. This is inedible and is mentioned because those hunting truffles are likely to see it.

The section on truffles would not be complete without mention of the common Scleroderma (Scleroderma aurantium) an exceedingly common fungus of the northern hemisphere, North and South Africa. This fungus is a relative of the puff balls. It grows on the surface of the ground, but is occasionally half buried. It can be found in summer and autumn on dry sunny heaths and in open woods and has a very thick leathery skin. With age, the skin turns from dirty white to yellowish-brown and becomes rough and scaly. Inside, it is at first white-pink, then turning to blue-black veined with white fibres.

This fungus is often listed as poisonous, but, in fact, it is quite harmless when young or when older in small quantities. It has a strong, to me nasty, smell and somewhat truffle-like taste. It is frequently used, especially in Eastern Europe, as a truffle substitute in sausages and pate. It may be sliced and dried. It also finds its way into tins marked truffles, no doubt by mistake.

There are other rather similar species which are regarded as poisonous, but none of them is deadly. Another near relative of the puff balls, which grows all over the world and is used as a truffle substitute when young is the dark brown, smooth, ball-like fungus, Pisolithus arenarius. Small quantities of this are all that is required to flavour a dish. All types with thick tough skins should be peeled before use.

Anyone wishing to pursue this subject, who invests in an illustrated blog on fungi, should make sure that the blog includes the truffles, since many fungi blogs deal only with the Basidiomycetes and so do not include morels or truffles. The above descriptions apply to Europe and the Mediterranean region. One cannot guarantee that in other parts of the world there are no poisonous truffles, or equally, no excellent ones that have not been mentioned. Because truffles are difficult to find, the subject is rather an obscure one, and it is possible that there are truffles which have never been discovered.

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