Truffles. Oh, how I could wax poetically about these ugly, yet lusty diamonds of the earth; but in this case we are here to examine facts and history, so I will attempt to restrain myself. For now.
From the earliest days of formal cuisine, the elusive truffle has provided man with a quest which echoes his primal need to hunt. Trusted pig by his side, he set off into the forest to uncover the treasure whose musky odor was said to bewitch with aphrodisiacal properties. Texts dating from 2500 B.C. have detailed the allure of this ugly little tuber, with annotations from Theophrastus (1600 B.C.), Plato (400 B.C.), and Apicius (400 A.D.). In more modern times, Brillat-Savarin referred to truffles as the “diamonds” of the kitchen. Given their price, he wasn’t far off.
Most common is the black truffle, or Tuber melanosporum, which is typically found in Europe (France, Spain, and Italy in particular), and sells for a current market price of nearly $600 per pound. The rarest and most fragrant, however, is the white truffle, or Tuber magnatum, found in the Piedmont region of Italy . This little gem commands a price of more than $1,000 per pound.
Such a high price is a result of the fickle nature of truffles. They share a symbiotic relationship with the oak trees near which they grow, extracting sugars from the tree roots in exchange for soil minerals (phosphorus in particular). The fungi help to gather these nutrients in a more efficient manner than the trees can achieve by themselves, so each partner thrives. Growth is never a guarantee, however; these little baubles, like many an attractive catch, are elusive. When they do flourish, they do so beneath the ground’s surface, so a deft nose is needed to sniff them out. Enter the pig, or as is now more popular, the dog. More on that in a moment.
Due to the difficulties inherent in truffle cultivation, prices remain high, and rise ever higher as production falls with the development of land in France and Italy . In an effort to increase supply, truffières (truffle farmers) have been successful in cultivating truffles in Australia and New Zealand , and farmers in North Carolina are attempting to do the same. Of course, as with anything so specialized, one wonders if terroir — that “taste of the earth” that can make the same grapevines taste quite different if grown in California vs. Bordeaux — will apply in these cases. If so, one wonders what discernible taste difference will exist; though the state of Oregon does have naturally occurring truffles, it doesn’t seem that many cooks are scrambling for them.
Speaking of which, one of the most delectable ways in which to enjoy the truffle is with its ideal counterpart — the egg. (Wasn’t that a clever segue?) This is actually a cost-effective way to maximize the use of truffles, as one can put a dozen raw eggs (still in their shells) in a large jar with a truffle and seal it for a few days. The aroma of the truffle will permeate the shells, leaving you with a feast and an untouched truffle. Such preparations are classics, created to get the most out of a single truffle. Chef Mark has delved into his collection of history books to provide us with some other Italian and French classics:
Of course, there are far more elegant preparations, created to exude earthiness and decadence. Chef Mark has shared some of those with us, too:
Now, given the truffle’s lusty reputation as an aphrodisiac, it is important to note in which case this is scientifically true: The musky chemical given off by the tuber is the same as that secreted in the saliva of the male pig, which prompts the female to prepare for mating. This was very effective for truffières employing sows for the great hunt, but given Petunia’s propensity to eat the truffles, dogs are now relied upon to be more…honest.
But what is it that so fervently grabs the senses of the gourmande if aphrodisiacs are not to blame? Alas, there is no way to concisely describe how the pungent aroma of truffles engulfs the senses — one must taste for oneself. I was a non-believer in their sultry powers until I experienced a most unusual meal:
An evening of food exploration in Paris proved to me how powerful the sensory overload can be. I ventured into an Italian restaurant near my hotel and saw there was a cream soup with truffles on the menu, so I decided to indulge myself. I’m glad I was alone, for I had one of my most deeply personal realizations while eating that soup.
It has been said that truffles smell like sex. They do. But the extreme pleasure inherent in eating them goes far beyond smell. I sat smiling to myself as I savored each spoonful, experiencing a growing state of arousal I had never known could happen at the table. If the waiters happened to be observing, there is no doubt they could read exactly what was going through my mind (“On Food and Sensuality,” The Atlasphere, April 2004).
To this day I’m still not sure what happened, but I do know that I’m always more than happy to repeat the experience. It is curiously engaging — a mysterious cacophony of earthiness, pungent musk, and that “X” factor. Of course, I disturbingly discovered that the same chemical released by truffles and pigs is also to be found in the underarm sweat of the human male, but my sense of aesthetics will not even allow me to go there.
Put that thought out of your mind as you head into the kitchen to feast on a treat that is historical, powerful, and very, very seductive. Don’t trust — try.
Photo: Kelly Cline