Often dubbed the most expensive food in the world, truffle mushrooms are equally as enigmatic as they are pricey. You may be well versed in foods that are flavored with truffles, like truffle oils, butters, fries, vodka, and salt, but do you actually know what they are?
Truffles are considered a delicacy around the world and are a delicious complement to just about everything. Here’s what you should know about the subterranean mushroom. You may just appreciate them all the more--even the steep price.
What Are Truffle Mushrooms?
Truffes are subterranean Ascomycete fungi of the Tuber species. They form underground in symbiotic association with the roots of trees, such as beech, poplar, oak, birch, hornbeam, hazel, and pine. They are dispersed by animals that eat fungi (aka “fungivores”). Farmers use dogs or pigs to track down truffles by their scent. They are mostly found in spring and the most common truffles are black. Other varieties include gray and white.
Truffles were first mentioned as far back as 20th century BCE in the inscriptions of neo-Sumerians. Egyptians ate truffles coated in goose fat and it was popularly believed that truffles came from the ground after lightning struck the earth. During the Middle Ages, the church considered the truffle as a devil’s creation and few people sold or ate them. They regained popularity during the European Renaissance and were popular in Parisian markets by the 1780s. They were so expensive that they quickly became a sign of nobility and riches. By the mid-1800s, more than 2,000 tons of truffles appeared throughout Europe.
In the 1960s, truffles experienced their lowest production numbers, falling to just 400 tons. Since then, output has risen, but not substantially, and prices have soared dramatically. Farmers are now producing truffles all over the world in the UK, the U.S., Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and South Africa. Truffles run anywhere between $1,000 and $4,000 per pound in Europe and are relatively cheaper in the U.S., selling for a few hundred dollars to $800.
Black vs. White Truffles
White and black truffles are both lucrative, but they differ in meaningful, albeit subtle, ways. Here are four variations that are worth understanding:
Winter Black Truffle: The winter black truffle is commonly known as the Périgord Truffle or the Black Diamond of Provence. It is mostly harvested in Italy, Spain, and France, growing under the shade of oaks, hazelnut, chestnut elm, and poplar trees between November and March. Their production peaks in January and February. Fresh black truffles are perhaps the most highly sought-after variety of truffles. Winter black truffles carry an aroma reminiscent of chocolate and earth. This truffle bears a brownish-grey color and knobbly, roundish skin.
Summer Black Truffle: The summer black truffle, also known as the Truffle de la St. Jean, is considered secondary to the winter black truffle in popularity. Its season lasts from May to the end of August. Its appearance is like that of the winter black truffle, with a yellowish gray interior. It does not have that striking of an aroma as a white truffle and is best used in dishes that are cooked, which helps to bring out its subtle chocolate and earth-like aroma.
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Winter White Truffle: Known as the Piedmont Truffle, the White Truffle from Alba, or the Italian White Truffle, winter white truffle differentiates from the summer white truffle is the season in which it is harvested and its more intense aromatic profile. It has a shallot-like flavor and a musky, earthy aroma. It has a yellowish color and smooth texture. It is mostly found in Northern and Central Italy but can also be found in Croatia and other parts of Europe. Compared to black truffles, white truffles are more gaseous, have a more intense flavor, and perish more easily, so they are best used fresh or immediately after being sliced.
Summer White Truffle: The Marzuili Truffle is a better summer option than the black truffle. The summer white truffle retains that iconic pungent white truffle aroma, although not as intense in flavor. It has sweet, garlicy overtones and a musky fragrance. Like the winter white truffle, the summer white truffle is best utilized uncooked and shaved over dishes to maximize its flavors.
Are Truffles Healthy?
Truffles have historically been noted for their medicinal value. They are used in soups and teas to boost the immune system, prevent cancer, and fight heart disease. Truffles are low in calories but are packed with protein, chitin, iron, zinc, fiber, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Where to Find Truffles
Rather than stock up on truffles by the pound or harvest your own, engage with the middleman, purchasing truffle-inspired products. It doesn’t have to be exorbitantly expensive for you to enjoy these delicate fungi to the fullest. The Gourmet Food Store has quite the long list of products that are infused with truffle flavors, from sauces, oils, and butters to juices, honeys, and cheese.
Truffles are also featured on the menus of high-end restaurants, which is perhaps the best way to get started in acclimating yourself to truffle flavors. Other ways to get educated and to taste them first hand is to attend the many truffle festivals around the world. Stateside, the Oregon Truffle Festival and the Napa Truffle Festival are both taking place in January 2016.
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Black Truffle Image from Shutterstock