Truffles 101 – What Makes Them Special? | Foolproof

By Mann Bijlani February 9, 2017
You can put truffles on everything, even burgers. Image: ReluctantHousedad.com

Truffles are a must on the menu at any Italian or French restaurant, especially if it’s a fine-dining space. These remarkable fungi rose to popularity after the Renaissance, a period during which they were found to be in abundance. The last century, however, has seen truffles become rarer and therefore more difficult to find and harvest from the ground.

That’s hardly the only challenge truffles and chefs face before those magnificent shavings reach a plate. The laws of most countries have strict import rules and unreasonably high excise duty. To add to this, a truffle, like a flower, starts dying slowly once it’s plucked. Some argue that this extremely perishable quality makes a truffle unequivocally valuable and poetic to eat.

To get a sense of how chaotic and intense the world of truffles and selling them is, check out this podcast by Dan Pashaman, where he walks around New York with a truffle dealer.

The two major types of truffles in this world are Black and White. Then you’ll find truffle oil, which is generally synthetic, although few do use actual truffle. Lastly, there’s chocolate truffles – balls of chocolate ganache rolled in cocoa powder, also completely unrelated to the truffles we’re talking about.

A dictionary definition of truffles reads: the bulbous fruits of a fungal network. Just like a fine wine, a cheese, or much of European produce, truffles require specific conditions and particular trees to flourish, highlighting how sensitive they are to their environment.

Truffles are also rather rare, which only increases the demand gourmands have for them. Since climate change has altered certain conditions required by truffles, there are only a few black truffle farms that provide a substantial yield. The Alba White Truffle however, is native to Italy and cannot be farmed. It’s an extreme animal that’s rarer and more flavourful, therefore more heavily priced and widely loved than its black cousin.

 

Marbling inside a black truffle. Image: Quirksee.com

Marbling inside a black truffle. Image: Quirksee.com

 

Apart from the colour differences between the two, black truffles have a sort of marbling of their own fungal network along their lattice. Well-trained dogs replaced pigs to hunt truffles, the aroma of which they can pick up rather easily.

Speaking of aroma, truffles have a strong one. To some, they smell of stinky armpits. Yet, there’s no denying that they taste of the earth to an almost sensual degree. It’s no wonder that truffles are considered an aphrodisiac.

Classical French cuisine has used truffles in a variety of ways. Foie and Truffle were the trademarks of certain dishes, and truffles, though still expensive, would be used generously in dishes, and then again for garnish. Today, you will find fewer restaurants offering truffles as a side to the regular menu items. Shaved over a dish, they really heighten the sensory experience and are definitely worth travelling for.

There isn’t a defined season to harvest these culinary jewels. However, farmers generally harvest white truffles from September to January and black ones from October to March. Truffles are harvested in other European regions as well, as well as pockets of the US.

More often than not, truffles are smuggled into countries or sent concealed in cargo/mail. Due to the prices associated with this item, truffle vendors often keep their locations and identities discreet. That’s why you won’t find Chefs throwing around names easily either. When the package arrives, it’s thoroughly examined. Each truffle is checked for weight and flaws. Too many cracks means lesser surface area for shaving, or that there’s space for mold to grow from moisture and dirt. Truffles are clinically handled and stored with enormous care due to their slow deaths beginning on plucking.

The truffle culture hasn’t exactly taken Mumbai by storm, and with palates often leaning towards vegetarian and safe, the idea of spending thousands of rupees over a few shavings of a fungus is considered either strange or unnecessary. Some places do serve food with truffles, though. We mean actual truffle shavings and not truffle oil, which is mostly for aroma and hardly fun to eat.

 

At Rs 4500, The Radio Bar's Truffle Extravaganza is probably Mumbai's most expensive pizza.

At Rs 4500, The Radio Bar’s Truffle Extravaganza is probably Mumbai’s most expensive pizza.

 

The Radio Bar in Bandra serves Truffle Extravaganza – a pizza base scented with truffle oil, then topped with shaved black truffles, white and green asparagus, grilled artichokes, goat cheese, and caramelized onion. This pizza is priced at Rs 4500 (ahem, only), likely making it the most expensive pizza in the city. Colaba’s The Table has a Taglierini Pasta with Black Truffle, Celery Root & Black Truffle Risotto, and Truffle Soft Scrambled Eggs On Toast, served on Toasted Sourdough with Chives.

For more dope on truffles at Bastian and One Street Over, check out Chef Kelvin Cheung’s Instagram feed, which is giving us serious eating goals.

The decision to eat truffles or not is completely yours to make, though if you do love food, most food writers, chefs, and eaters will recommend trying truffles at least once in a lifetime.