The elusive truffle

Posted by on Sep 30, 2011 | 0 comments

With a pungent earthy and garlicky flavor and aroma, the white truffle, also known as the alba madonna, is so celebrated in haute cuisine kitchens worldwide that chefs are willing to shell out as much as $10,000 dollars per pound–making it the second most expensive food in the world, only surpassed by edible gold leaf.

While attempts to cultivate French black truffles have been successful (although difficult), efforts to cultivate Italian white truffles–which are found primarily in the Langhe region of Piedmont, Italy–have failed, making them truly unique to the soil of this region. Truffles form symbiotic relationships with tree roots (including oak, hazelnut, poplar, and beech trees), and therefore are typically found underground in wooded areas. Historically, female pigs were used to hunt truffles because of their innate ability to smell a compound within the truffle that smells like a sex pheromone found in boar saliva; however, this compound often proves to be so seductive to the hogs that once they find and dig up the truffles, they can’t resist taking a bite. A single truffle can sell for thousands of dollars, so most Italian truffle hunters have opted to use trained dogs instead.

It is understandable that truffles, especially white truffles, are so expensive and coveted, when you consider the combination of their unique delicious taste with their scarcity, and the necessary labor-intensive methods used to acquire them. In fact, unless you have been lucky enough to splurge on a meal featuring white truffle shavings at a fancy restaurant, you have probably never tasted white truffles. Many white “truffle” products are not made with truffles at all. For instance, white truffle oil which sells for upwards of fifteen dollars for a 250ml bottle, is usually just olive oil that has been synthetically flavored to imitate the qualities of truffles, often fooling the consumer into thinking they are getting a taste of the real thing.

This weekend, the first and second of October 2011, the real things, the actual whole white truffles in all of their wild and earthy glory, will be displayed and auctioned at the 81st annual truffle festival in Alba, drawing in gourmet chefs and truffle enthusiasts from around the world. The event also features other tasty regional delights and cultural events, for those who prefer not to max-out their credit cards on truffles.

For more on truffles, check out this post.