"It’s the biggest scam in the gourmet food world.” This is the voice of Rosario Safina, owner of daRosario Organics, the only producer of USDA 100% organic truffle products. Safina recently spoke with us about commercial truffle products sold here in the States—and in the rest of the world, for that matter—where gourmet “truffle” products contain little more than chemical additives, flavorings, aromas and synthetic ingredients. Yet everyone in the business seems to be aware of the scam, except for us, the consumers.
Eighteenth-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin once called truffles “the diamond of the kitchen,” and in today’s foodie-dominated marketplace, they are popping up on burgers, French fries, salad dressings, sea salts, virtually any menu that wants to be seen in the gourmet scene. But many of these truffle products are in fact not actual truffles at all.
The Rare White Truffle
White truffles—what most “truffle” products proclaim they are made of—are a specific type of mushroom growing in the wild almost exclusively in Italy, and their season just lasts four or five months a year. They are limited in numbers, in growing region, in seasonality and in their very nature. They cannot be cultivated. And yet, they happen to be exquisitely delicious, with a flavor profile so unique that no other single natural food can even come close to mimicking their “umami” taste. So what happens when such an ingredient, so widely demanded in a fashionably gourmet industry, has a limited supply with an incredibly high price tag?
Frequently Mimicked, Rarely Authentic
In a 2003 Vogue article, Jeffrey Steingarten revealed that the most common ingredient found in “truffle” food products is actually a chemical: 2,4-dithiapentane. Companies claiming “100% natural” truffle actually commonly use undisclosed ingredients from supposed “natural processes” to mimic the aroma and flavor of real truffles. In actuality, most of the supposed truffle products on the market—including those with fancy labels, imported, expensive and allegedly natural—are using artificial flavors and additives. It’s thought 99% of the population has never even tasted a true truffle… and so they don’t know the difference.
Jonathan Gold has said that Americans have lost their taste for subtlety; they need to be knocked out by flavor. If this is true, commercial “truffle” producers are indeed catering to their desire. Authentic truffles have a delicate flavor (though unmistakable), but consumers are always wanting more bang for their buck. And so the artificial truffle additives mimic the flavor and aroma of real truffles, but maximize it to really pack in a punch. But that’s just strong, intense flavoring you’re tasting—and not that of a real truffle.
It’s easy to discern truffle additives by the label of a product, Safina says. You just have to know what clues to look for. Think of it in the same way you read your other packaged food labels. Words like “extract,” “aroma,” “flavor,” “natural flavor” or even “essence” are common on truffle product labels, and they all indicate the same thing—not real truffle.
Consumers should also be wary of “truffle extract” on labels, warns Safina. Extraction on such products is usually alcohol-based, a process which gives a very volatile (and also expensive) result that has a more alcohol flavor than anything. Think about alcohol-extracted vanilla, which isn’t nearly as prized or delicious as alcohol-free, pure vanilla extract.
You must still even be cautious, Safina urges, with organic truffle products. Take a bottle of certified organic truffle olive oil, for example. The olive oil may indeed be certified organic, but as far as truffles are concerned, the product might only contain supposed truffle extract, aroma, essence, and so on.
What to Look for
What’s a consumer to do in order to tell the real truffle product from the artificial? Safina has a few pointers. If you’re out to eat, ask the server if the chef is using fresh truffles. If so, you’re golden. If not, ask what type of truffle product it actually is. Some consumers may not care that what they’re getting isn’t the real thing, but simply it just tastes like truffles. If so, that’s your prerogative. But at least be informed.
For those interested in Safina’s products at daRosario Organics, you can learn more and get some great recipes on the company’s blog. Their products are made with authentic truffles and are certified 100% organic. Their truffles are tracked down to the source of where they are harvested in the regions of Umbria, Italy, and the company employs an original method of vacuum extraction to create any truffle extractions. Safina cautions that his products range anywhere from 40 to 100% more expensive than the others on the market, but that they’re real. It’s not meant to be used on your everyday burger; it’s meant for special occasions, used in small amounts and appreciated for what it is. “If you can afford this stuff, you should afford this stuff,” he says.
Safina sent us a few samples of the products he proudly sells at daRosario, all of which are certified 100% organic and made with real truffles. There were three olive oils—each infused with porcini mushrooms, black truffles or white truffles. You can see how each has its own place in the kitchen. Porcini olive oil for Japanese and Macrobiotic dishes like seaweed salad, azuki stew or brown rice risotto. Black truffle olive oil, made from the less-rare black truffle, for fish, steak or as a finishing drizzler. And white truffle oil, surprisingly buttery in flavor, is good enough to sip from a spoon. daRosario also carries truffle-spiked mayonnaises, with both black and white truffle versions. The white truffle gives a serious dose of umami flavor—we’ll be trying it out on homemade burgers later this week. Then there was a black truffle butter. While made with the less-rare black truffles, this infused butter is still loaded with great flavor, almost to the point of delightful funk. We’ll be trying it out in sparing amounts melted into pastas and for sautéing eggs.
Follow Kimberley on Twitter @GreenGourmetKim
Image: Marcus Hansson
Disclosure: daRosario Organics supplied us with a sample of their products for this piece; no other compensation from the company was received.