Truffles are funguses that grow underground near tree roots. They are found in Asia, North Africa, North America and of course, Europe. There are also false Truffles, some of which are poisonous, that resemble the edible ones.
Truffles are round. They can be in size anywhere from a walnut to a lemon. They are the “fruit” of the fungus, and its spores are the seeds. Truffles have a symbiotic relationship with trees: by coating the roots of trees, they help the tree absorb certain minerals in the soil, and in return they absorb carbohydrates from the tree.
They will grow 2 to 12 inches (5 to 30 cm) beneath the soil’s surface, causing the surface of the soil to rise slightly above them. In Latin this was called “terrae tuffolae”, which led to the word “truffle.” There will be no surface vegetation around the trees where truffles have settled in. This “scorched earth” appearance is called the “brule.” You may also note a lot of insect or small animal activity.
In Europe, they really do use dogs or female pigs to find them. To the female pigs, the Truffles smell something like male pig sex hormones. Dogs are better to use, however, as pigs do tend to eat whatever they find. There is even a dog, called the Romagna Water dog, that has been bred to look for Truffles. The dogs are rewarded with a treat, such as cheese, for finding a truffle.
Once a Truffle site is identified, a Truffle hunter can reasonably expect to find Truffles there as well in the coming years. Now, trees are even planted with Truffle spores on their roots (some have also been shipped to North America.) In about 7 years, the first Truffle will appear, and the “farmer” should be able to harvest Truffles from it for at least 15 years, and up to 30 years.
In North America, squirrels and chipmunks dig up Truffles and so get the spores in the air that the Truffles propagate from. The biggest challenge for North American Truffle hunters is getting them before the squirrels do.
Only when the Truffles smell are they ready to be harvested. They need to be used quickly; a Truffle’s flavour degrades rapidly after harvesting.
A Black Truffle will be black all the way through, though some very fine white veins are acceptable. Truffles will almost always be lumpy. Small holes in a Truffle may indicate that some insects have decided to make their home in it.
Imports into France of Chinese Truffles started around the mid 1990s. A Chinese Truffle looks almost like a French Truffle, The scientific name of the Chinese one is “tuber indicum”; the French one is “tuber melanosporum.” The French say that while the Chinese ones do have a mushroom flavour, they are slightly bitter and don’t have a proper truffle flavour. In France, these must be sold as “truffes de Chine.” To be sold in France as “truffes”, “truffes noir” or “truffes de Périgord”, the Truffle must be “tuber melanosporum” or the closely related “tuber brumale”, which is slightly cheaper. Even restaurants have to adhere to this on the menu, or they are breaking the law and can face fines or imprisonment (of up to two years!) Wholesale prices for French black Truffles in 2004 were $1,250 US per kg, compared with $25 for the Chinese ones.
Italian Truffles are considered superior to French.
White Truffles are very aromatic Italian Truffles. They grow on the roots of elm, birch, maple and oak trees. Those growing on oak tree roots are the most sought after. White Truffles are harvested in the autumn and early winter in the Langhe area of Piedmont region. The fall of 2004 brought a bumper harvest for White Truffles, but they still sold for $1,600 US a pound.
Their scientific name is “Tuber Magnatum Pico.” In Italian, they are called “tartuffi bianchi.”
Black Truffles are from the Périgord region of France; they are slightly less expensive than Italian white ones. They are available in winter and early spring. Their scientific name is “Tuber melanosporum.”
They grow mostly in the south of Provence, though they’re also found in Italy — near Spoletto, in Umbria.
These were first actually found in California. They grow on the roots of Douglas fir trees.
The white one is called “Tuber gibbosum.” It sells for about $150 US a pound (2004 prices.) The Black Oregon Truffle is called “Leucangia carthusiana.”
The Truffles now being harvested in Texas are called “Tuber texensis.”
The German variety, called “Tuber aestivum”, is a black summer Truffle.
Small, brown, chocolates that look like very small Truffles, thus the “borrowing” of the name “Truffles.” There is no actual Truffle in them, of course.
Truffles are used as flavouring, rather than as the main ingredient in a dish, and are rarely cooked, because cooking can destroy the flavour. You grate or finally slice the Truffles into or onto dishes. You can buy special Truffle slicers. Truffle fans will shave them on top of risotto, pasta, omelettes or even just fried eggs.
Some dishes that do involve cooking truffles include some pâtés and some versions of foie gras.
They are, understandably, dirty when they are dug out of the ground. Brush off the soil, wash black ones with water (just brush the white ones with a slightly dampened toothbrush or mushroom brush). Do not peel, do not soak. Pat dry with paper towel.
Don’t store Truffles at room temperature.
Before storing Truffles in the refrigerator, clean them first (don’t wash) and completely dry them. Do not put them in closed or sealed plastic bags, as they will turn mouldy and slimy very quickly.
You can immerse them in a light olive oil, completely covered, and refrigerate for up to two weeks. Reserve the scented oil olive, refrigerated, for another use in the near future. The oil will go bad if you try to store it too long (see Truffle Oil).
Alternatively, to refrigerate for up to two weeks, put them in a container, and cover them completely with uncooked rice, then cover the container tightly. It must be tightly sealed or even your orange juice will absorb the Truffle taste. Use the rice afterwards for another purpose. Risotto rice is a good choice of rice; then you can used the scented rice for a nice risotto.
To freeze, completely coat them with olive oil and freeze for up to a year. Don’t thaw before using; they will go mooshy when thawed. Cook with them straight from the freezer.
You can also blend grated Truffle into butter to make Truffle butter, then freeze the butter.
Some say that the Greeks and Romans valued Truffles as delicacies. The Roman food writer, Apicius, lists six recipes for Tubera, which they translate as “Truffles”, in chapter 7 of his cookbook, “de re Coquinaria”.
It is still the topic of debate, however, as to whether by “Tubera” the Romans meant what we know as Truffles, or whether they meant “Puffballs”. The word may have been used interchangeably a great deal. Apicius, in one recipe said to be for Truffles, instructs the reader to use “tubera quae aquae non vexaverint” (tubera undamaged by water), and that is far more likely to happen to Puffballs than it is to Truffles underground.
France had a bad truffle year in 2003 owing to a heat wave which dried out the ground; the truffle harvest in the ensuing fall and winter was only 20% of its usual size. This caused Truffle prices to surge.
Alleyne, Richard. White truffle harvest has scent of success. Daily Telegraph. 16 October 2004.
Levy, Paul. Nobody knows the truffle I’ve seen. Manchester: The Guardian. 17 January 2008.
Moore, Malcolm. Truffle prices up as Italian summer ruins crop. London: The Telegraph. 1 November 2007.
Smith, Craig S. Voilà, the Chinese Truffle (the French Accent Is Fake). New York Times: New York. 6 February 2004.