Take a sniff of these truffles, taking the culinary world by storm
The next time you are at a fine dining Italian or French restaurant, try and find the most expensive dish on the menu. Chances are it will contain shavings of a magical ingredient loved by chefs worldwide, the rare and wonderfully aromatic truffle. Be it the white or black variety, truffles have created a buzz on the culinary scene which is going to last a while. Restaurants in India are now serving truffles in select dishes as well, catering to gourmands who need no longer travel abroad to taste the delicacy.
Those new to the world of truffles will take one look at the knobbly, muddy lump and wonder what all the fuss is about. But once the server shaves a few slices onto their plate at the table, they will no longer doubt all the hype. The earthy aroma of fresh truffles is meant to drown out all others in the room while maintaining subtlety in flavour.
Truffles are edible fungi found growing symbiotically with certain varieties of trees, like the oak, hazel, beech and pine. They grow in association with the roots of these trees and are therefore found below soil cover. They are a picky bunch, with climate and soil conditions having to be just right for their growth. Attempts at artificial or manual production of truffles have gone awry very often, so truffle harvesters prefer to roam the woods in search of the wild variety. They are secretive about their harvest points and will guard the locations closely, taking with them only their trained hog or dog for company. Some even resort to hunting for truffles late at night, just to avoid disclosure of the location. The animals with their keen sense of smell can sniff out truffles buried deep in the soil or leaf litter. But harvesters have to keep a close eye on their hogs as they are known to gobble up the valuable truffle as soon as they locate it!
The various types
There are a number of truffle varieties growing in the wild but only a few are noted for their flavour and usability. They have been used in gastronomy for centuries and have always been loved for the depth of flavour they add to the dish. Of all the types available, white truffles are the most sought-after and the most expensive. White truffles from the Piedmont region in Italy are the ultimate in fine dining, with a single piece weighing in at a few pounds once reportedly sold for over $300,000 at an auction. Yes, truffles are so luxurious that they get their own auction, just like art. The less aromatic black truffle from the Périgord region in France is easier to obtain and is less expensive, but the flavour imparted is quite delicious still. Harvested only during the autumn months, they are cleaned and canned for sale or imported fresh to high-end restaurants around the world.
The lesser valued varieties are the summer truffles and Chinese truffles, while other types are now grown even in the USA. Their aromatic properties are less pronounced, leading to a drop in their value.
Cooking tends to dissipate the flavour of truffles so they are served raw, grated on top of pastas and other dishes. Some gourmands believe the more buttery the dish, the better its pairing with truffles. So they choose to top cheesy pasta, buttered bread and even fried eggs with slivers of this delectable fungus. Truffle oil is another ingredient used often in pastas, risottos and soups but make sure that the olive oil has actually been infused with slices of black truffle. Most truffle oil brands use a chemical compound which mimics the aroma of truffles. Fresh truffles can raise the cost of a dish by hundreds of dollars but the musky flavour imparted is worth the price.