Truffles: diamonds in the dirt

Posted by on Jan 10, 2012 | 0 comments

“Truffles are a luxury,” said James de Coquet, “and the first requirement of a luxury is that you should not have to economize.” As I must with anyone who stresses the importance of good food, I agree. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to put that philosophy into practice; good truffles are expensive. In fact, the most I’ve found on my plate at any time has been a layer of raw white truffle shavings topping a simple risotto. Th dish was divine, but just once I’d like to have the experience of sinking my teeth into a whole fresh truffle.

Louis XIV knew the experience; he consumed a pound of truffles a day. He could, of course, because he was Louis XIV. Today, truffles can fetch up to $10,000 per pound at the source, and I – alas – am not Louis XIV.

I don’t need a pound a day, however. I want just one.

The problem lies in finding one that’s worthwhile. There are 42 recognized species of truffle, all of which are edible and few of which should be. The French are most fond of the black Perigord, while I side with Italians in preferring the white truffle of Alba. Both are rough outside, with a tightly marbled flesh that resemble what I imagine a meteorite to look like.

The unusual taste of a truffle can be appreciated only if it is cooked simply or served raw. I’ve been told that its aroma hovers somewhere between garlic, chocolate, and boar meat. To me, honestly, they smell a little like dirt – albeit a musky, earthy, inviting dirt that makes my mouth water and sends little flashes of electricity simultaneously through all of my brain’s pleasure centers, making me quiver in anticipation. To me, nothing else can smell like a truffle.

They are generally about the size of a walnut, growing individually among the roots of certain trees and predatorily devouring the tree’s nutrients. The truffle is a fungus and lives entirely underground, about a foot below the surface, changing the chemical composition of the soil around it so dramatically that you can best spot a “truffle tree” by looking for a circle of what looks like scorched earth, where little or nothing will grow. Even today, some say that truffles are the fruit of the devil. I’m no theologian, but I suspect that they are wrong.

Still, who knows? The truffle remains something of a mystery to us. We haven’t been very successful at cultivating them, although many have tried over the past two centuries, nor can we explain why they grow only under certain trees (often oaks and beeches) and not under others of the same species. The best we can do is hunt. There are over 15,000 professional truffle hunters in France alone, and they bring in only 25 to 150 tons per year, depending on the season’s rainfall and other weather conditions. That’s only 3 pounds per hunter on a bad year – hence the price.

If you’d like to try for yourself, you’ll need help, since few humans can smell a truffle growing underground. French hunters claim pigs make the best sniffers, while Italians prefer dogs (except in Sardinia, where they believe goats hunt the best truffles). Rumor has it that Russians use bear cubs, but I’d have to see it to believe it; they’d barely be trained before they grew so large they’d be a lot more interested in larger prey, including truffle hunters.

Truffles tend to grow in the same spot year after year, so memory is as important as the hunt for new sources – and secrecy is as important as memory. Italian trufflers frequently hunt at night, often without flashlights, to avoid prying eyes. So be careful if you’re walking around Alba after dark, as it might get you a broken arm. And the law won’t protect you: no court in Alba would convict a truffler defending his territory.

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