I love Truffles. Everything about them. From the way they taste, to the smell of the oil to how they are cultivated… I like them on pizza, in pasta and mashed into deviled eggs (by far the best truffle dish I’ve ever consumed). Oddly, I despise mushrooms. All kinds. And I have this almost sixth sense-like ability when it comes to them being incorporated into a dish. As soon as it’s put down in front of me, I know. Odd, right? This little fact made it quite the challenge to eat out at restaurants when I was vegetarian, as most vegetarian dishes are totally mushroom, as in a Portobello cap, or have some sort of mushroom particles, as in mushroom ravioli. The mushroom is by far the “meatiest” of all vegetables, hence it’s omnipresence on all vegetarian menus, but it’s just not something that I can stomach.
You can imagine my surprise the first time I boldly sampled a truffle infused oil… and loved it! It’s been culinary bliss from that point forward. Picking a restaurant solely based on one word on their menu (um, truffle) is not uncommon and my recent acquisition of truffle oil has warranted an almost empty bottle. Being borderline obsessed, I decided to take a deeper look into what makes the delectable delights so costly and look at some differences between the black and white truffle.
Truffles grow underground, are the fruiting body of the fungi and the seeds of the vegetable are spread by fungivores, animals that eat mushrooms. While there are hundreds of truffle species, the fruiting body of the black truffle and the white truffle are the most commonly used in cooking. Called the “diamond of the kitchen” by 18th century gastronome Brillat-Savarin, these tasty fungi have been popular in French, Spanish, Northern Italian and Greek cooking and come at a cost. They are virtually impossible to mass produce or grow, as they are only found in woodlands, growing near the roots of trees. Winter white truffles (also called Alba truffles, named after the region from where they are cultivated) commander $6,000-10,000 per pound, but the summer white and both the summer and winter black truffles can be purchased at a lower cost, roughly $3000 per pound.
The White Truffle is found in the northern region of Italy, Piedmont, and are the most aromatic and costly variation of truffle. Grown near beech, oak and popular, the fruit appears in the fall, and cultivated in the winter. The Black Truffle grows exclusively with oak, found in late autumn and winter and found primarily in the French region of Perigord. In the early 1900’s, the French were producing 1,000 metric tons of truffles. Now, the supply has decreased drastically to approximately 20 metric tons per year.
And then there’s North Carolina. In the past year, two NC residents, independent of one another, have been growing and selling local North Carolina grown truffles, bringing in roughly 50 pounds per year. Wait, how are they growing and selling truffles, when they are dependent on certain growing needs, more specifically oak trees and woodland? The farmers have imported specially inoculated trees, with truffle spores that grow on the trees roots. The $20 saplings take anywhere from 5-10 years to produce a truffle, but one tree covered acre could produce 75 pounds of truffles. Selling at $600 wholesale, the trees could bring the farmers $45,000 per year. If, that is, the mushrooms will consistently grow and aren’t decimated by infection and disease.
Another reason the “black diamonds” are so costly? The wild truffles in Europe are found by pigs and dogs, who are attracted to the pheromones in the mushroom. Initially, it was solely the truffle hogs were used, because they were naturally attracted to the smell and it was easier for them to find. However, if the hogs are not watched closely, they will eat the truffles. While the dogs do not eat the tasty treasures, they must be trained to hunt for the mushrooms.
The best way to eat a truffle is with as little competing flavors as possible, in a very simple dish, most often served as “truffle shavings.” Truffle oil is common, which in most cases does not include actual truffles, but was created to emulate the flavor and smell, and used on french fries, in pasta dishes and to flavor items such as cream cheese or butter. I’ve yet to experiment with an actual truffle in my cooking, but believe me, when I do, you will be the first to know!