What Are Truffles and Why Are They So Expensive?
Truffles, the darling of the food scene, are not the chocolate treats that bear the same name. Not dessert truffles, true truffles are a rare delight and not an opportunity to be missed. While they are typically considered expensive food, there are ways to get your truffle fix in the United States through avenues such as truffle oil.
There are white and black truffles, and they’re as different as night and day. There are some similarities – they’re both a subterranean fungus that grows in the shadow of oak trees. However, there are over seven different truffle species found all over the world, from the Pacific Northwest to China to North Africa and the Middle East.
Truffles can be found concentrated in certain areas around the world, with the Italian countryside and French countryside being rich places of growth. Black truffles grow with the oak and hazelnut trees in the Périgord region in France. Burgundy truffles can be found throughout Europe in general, like the black summer truffle.
White truffles are typically found in the Langhe and Montferrat areas of northern Italy around the Piedmont region. Additionally, the countrysides of Alba and Asti are popular truffle hunting areas. White truffles are also found in the hill regions of Tuscany in Italy near certain trees.
Not just localized to Europe, however, New Zealand Australia also see truffles growing. The first black truffle produced in the Southern Hemisphere was in New Zealand in 1993. In Australia, Tasmania was the origin of the first truffle harvests and the largest truffle from Australia, weighing in at 2 pounds, 6 ounces) was harvested by Michael and Gwynneth Williams.
In the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., four species of truffles are commercially harvested: the Oregon black truffle, the Oregon spring white, Oregon winter white truffle, and the Oregon brown truffle.
In the South, the pecan truffle is often found alongside fallen pecans. While farmers once discarded them, the gourmet food scene is slowly starting to incorporate them into seasonal dishes.
Depending which country they hail from, they’re sniffed out by specially trained dogs or pigs, then dug up by the “hunter”. They’re located through the natural aroma they release when they interact with certain plants, mammals, and insects. These interactions also encourage new colonies of the truffle fungus to appear through spore dispersal.
White Truffle fresh from the hunt
Both white and black truffles share the same appearance, that of a lumpy potato, but it’s in taste and shelf-life they differ.
Each kind of truffle is firmly in the “umami” category of taste – very earthy and doesn’t need a lot of salt to trip your tastebuds.
The black truffle is far more common, even in haute cuisine. Available for six to nine months a year, it has a stronger taste and pungent aroma that often needs acquiring. I’ve experienced a black truffle-and-olive tapenade, a perfect use for it, because it evokes a black olive-type taste.
Because of the long season and easier odds of being found, black truffles are more affordable. They’re also freezable, making a less-risky purchase for a restaurant, further enabling them to keep prices down.
On the flip-side are white truffles, Earth’s gold. Typically valued at as much as $3,000 per pound, they inspire a big black market. Even legally, they can be outrageous in price. The Atlantic writes, “In 2010, Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho spent $330,000 on two pieces that weighed 2.87 pounds.”
Internationally, white truffles are big industry. Autumn may yield a truffle experience for you even here. The USA is currently third world-wide for truffle harvest volumes. Stick to truffle towns where restaurants hunt their own, and you maybe be surprised at bargains you find. I was shocked to only spend $20 for my white truffle meal in Croatia.
White truffles cannot be frozen and have a short shelf-life, up to about 10 days. They’re best devoured as soon as possible. Their season is short too – only three to four months each year, September through to as late as January.
I’ve heard of their seasons ending as early as November, though. They’re more elusive to find, often in different forest clusters than their black counterparts. All this computes to costing big bucks.
Even if you dislike black truffles, try fresh white truffles if you ever can. They’re a completely different flavor profile. Instead of black olives, think Parmesan cheese meets mushrooms. It’s a delicate, aromatic flavor – still earthy, but far from overbearing.
Wine and food pairings must let the white truffle take center stage, lest they overpower it. Think polenta with lots of Parmesan and excessive shavings on top.
If you can’t have the real truffle experience, you can buy truffle products flooding the market. These include truffle-infused oils, jams, tapenades, and so forth. Some will use extracts, which are as authentic to the real thing as any extract is. Think orange or lemon or almond extracts. Are they true to the real experience? Not really, but they have their own appeal.
With a growing popularity on the world market, cunning agriculturalists and truffle hunters are trying to farm truffles with mixed results. So far it seems truffles are Earth’s alchemy – a rare treat to remain rare.
Speaking for myself, I was sure I’d hate the pungent fungus, but I felt obligated to try them. Black truffles were a taste I could grow to appreciate, but I’m not a big fan of black olives either. I had decadently expensive dark chocolate-and-black truffle ice cream, though, and that was tasty.
Still, I long for the day I cross paths with white truffles again. The simple dish of polenta and white truffles stands as one of the greatest meals of my life.
There’s a reason they’re sometimes literally worth more than their weight in gold.