What does it all mean? A diner’s guide to truffles
Date Published : 04 Jun 2018

*Image courtesy of Pirata

It seems that everywhere we go we see “traditional dishes given a contemporary twist” with the addition of a little truffle. What is this gourmet fairy dust that is being sprinkled so liberally on our menus? We see it so often that we’re starting to get the feeling that a lot of restaurants simply use truffle as lazy shorthand for luxuriousness, pimping up their dishes willy-nilly without bothering about the appreciation of the unique flavour of this famous fungus.

Clearly it’s time to sort the facts from the hype. That’s why we spoke to someone who really knows his Alba from his elbow to find out more; Umberto Bombana, chef-founder of 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, is famed for his expertise with the white Alba truffle. According to Bombana, “The aroma and fragrance of the White Alba make it unique among truffles.” Of all truffle species, these are the rarest and most valuable, “There have been many attempts to cultivate white truffle outside of Italy,” says Bombana, “But so far, there has been no successful case.”

However, the vast majority of truffles that we see on menus are varieties of black truffle. Truffles of all kinds grow symbiotically on the roots of oak trees, buried underground. This makes them very hard to cultivate artificially; to grow truffles, you must first grow oak trees. Then, you must work out where to dig for your truffles. Thanks to their acute sense of smell dogs and pigs have long used to sniff the subterranean nuggets out for harvesting.

Despite all the difficulties of cultivating Truffles, by the start of the 20th century, France alone was producing hundreds of tonnes of them annually. This made truffles an affordable and accessible source of flavour for all types of cook. However, in modern times, as more people moved from the countryside to the city, the skills required to harvest truffles began to be forgotten. Furthermore, the First World War led to the loss of a huge proportion of Europe’s workforce, and with them expertise in truffle cultivation was lost too. This resulted in a plummeting supply and rising prices. It is this scarcity that has given the truffle its contemporary reputation as a rare delicacy.

In the past few decades, truffle cultivation has spread from Europe to the US and the Far East, once again bringing prices down and increasing their availability. Still, truffles remain so sought-after that stories abound of audacious nighttime raids by truffle thieves on the oak-tree groves where they’re cultivated or the kidnapping of truffle-hunting dogs.

What to look out for

We’ll defer here, again, to Bombana’s expertise, whose advice is, “Get fresh, firm truffle. Test its elasticity by pressing on the surface, if the surface bounces back quickly, this means that the truffle is fresh and good.”

The white truffles that have made Bombana’s food famous have a subtle and distinctive aroma. Due to their scarcity they remain one of the most valuable foodstuffs in the world. The funky aroma that is familiar in increasingly many cuisines is most likely from the more easily cultivated black truffle.

Mostly, you should be able to trust the wording on the packaging as to the origin of your truffles. However, some unscrupulous sellers have been known to cut a little cheaper Chinese truffle in with a batch being sold as wild European truffles. Even experts can struggle to taste the difference between black truffles from different sources. The big giveaway is always freshness; truffles that have travelled around the world are unlikely to stay fresh for long. The takeaway from this, is that when buying black truffles, choosing locally cultivated ones is likely to be better value than paying for fancy imported goods that have taken a long time to reach your plate.

And finally, use truffle sparingly. Thanks to the abundant supply in recent times, they seem to be popping up on menus in every type of restaurant regardless of whether they suit the dishes or not. They have a powerful flavour that should be handled with care, not splashed across every dish coming out of the kitchen.

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