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Unearthing the Truffle December 30, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Food Drinks News.

In ancient Greece, the historian Plutarch claimed that they hailed from lightning striking the Earth. A century ago, French writer Alexandre Dumas said, “They can, on certain occasions, make women more tender and men more lovable.”

The famous French gastronome Brillat-Savarin called them “diamonds of the kitchen.” At an annual auction in Alba, Italy, on November 12, a Hong Kong property tycoon paid $160,406 for a mere 3-pound specimen.

The source of this mania? The truffle, an underground fungus with an ethereal taste. Truffles are an unusual member of the mushroom family, growing completely underground in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. They typically range in size from about a marble to a medium potato, in colors including white, brown, gray and black, and have been consumed by humans for thousands of years. But most significantly, truffles taste and smell like nothing else: a slowly unfolding combination of deep, earthy richness with a pervasive, musky fragrance.

It’s impossible to forget your initial encounter. When I first picked up a white truffle, I was taken aback at how a knotty, diminutive tuber could emit such a heady perfume, redolent of absolutely nothing I’d ever encountered before. This experience comes at a price, however. Truffles currently retail for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per pound, depending on the type and time of year.

One of the causes of truffles’ exorbitant price is availability, today’s production is one-tenth of what it was a century ago, and the fact that there is no reliable or quick way to cultivate them.

Further, unearthing the truffles that are out there is quite labor intensive. For centuries, humans have relied on the superior olfactory senses of pigs and dogs to sniff out the treasure. As ripe truffles release a scent similar to that of a porcine pheromone, pigs are the most sensitive hunters; however, their short legs do tire easily requiring them to often be carried and they can, wisely, be possessive of the treasures they find.

With dogs, hunters do not have to fight for the bounty, but the animals must be painstakingly trained to pick out the scent.

The two primary types of truffles are the white or Alba truffle, which is found in the Piedmont region of Italy, and the black or Perigord truffle, hailing from central and southwestern France.

Varieties also are found in the deserts of North Africa, southern China, and in the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., notably the Oregon white truffle. These domestic truffles are often, somewhat unfairly, disregarded in the industry as far less fragrant and flavorful and therefore not “true” truffles.

Forest ecologist Matt Trappe, of the North American Truffling Society (NATS), offers an explanation. Truffle culture is far younger and less advanced in the United States than in Europe, and American harvesters usually gather them with rakes, not pigs or dogs. Therefore, immature specimens that haven’t had the time to properly develop the signature, deep aroma and flavor are often collected and sold.

Compounding the problem, American truffle buyers, often, the restaurants directly, may lack the practiced palate of their European counterparts, so they don’t demand mature, superior specimens from the sellers.

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