Food & Drink

Types of truffles

By David Pettebone
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variety of truffles on linen
For centuries, truffles have been said to possess mystical aphrodisiac powers
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The allure of truffles is, perhaps, best stated in this quotation:

"The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord." - Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

What is it about truffles that make them so irresistible to gourmet cooks? Why this allure? It's all in the particular odor of a few types of truffles. Connoisseurs consider truffles an aphrodisiac, a fact which adds to their desirablility. Some describe their smell as musky, earthy, pungent, or even sexy, although none of these terms adequately describe the odor. Once you have smelled a truffle, you long to smell it again and again.

Part of their attraction is their scarcity. Truffles are buried in the earth like little black diamonds (so nicknamed by French gastronome Brillat-Savarin). It seems to be human nature to crave what is hard to come by. Finding them is not easy. It takes patience, persistence, and knowledge of their growing conditions, as they're elusive.

Truffles are a rare and delicate type of edible mushroom that grows mainly in France, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia; truffles are also collected in the United States in Oregon and Washington. Truffles grow underground among the roots of oak, elm, chestnut, pine and willow trees where they form a symbiotic relationship with their environment. Duplicating these conditions for growing truffles commercially is not feasible or cost-effective on a wide scale, hence their high price.

Not to be confused with chocolate covered truffles, which are a confectionary that have no relation to mushroom truffles, the taste of a truffle is often compared to garlic blended with an earthiness or pungent mushroomy flavor. They are most often served uncooked, shaved into foods like pasta, salad or omelets. They are also served in light sauces, on fondue or even on pizza.

Of the many varieties of truffles, some of the most famous are the Italian white truffle, the French black truffle, the summer black truffle, and the March truffle. The white truffle, often referred to as the white diamond, is considered the rarest hence, demands the highest price. Truffles in general are among the most expensive foods in the world. Winter black truffles sell for $300-$500 U.S. dollars per pound (.45 kg).

Truffles alone don't really have much of a 'taste," but the smell is so overwhelming that it infuses any meal (and often the refrigerator). The actual taste of truffles is a little bland and when sliced over food, they are chewy. It's the smell that keeps you coming back.

Here are the different types of truffles:

Winter Black Truffle

Also known as, "Périgord Truffle" or "The Black Diamond of Provence," it is harvested mainly in Italy, Spain, and France, where it grows under the shade of oaks, hazelnut, chestnut elm and poplar trees, typically from November to March, peaking in January and February. Contrary to popular misconceptions, no country's truffle is superior to the other. Fresh black truffles are by far the most highly sought-after variety of this mushroom, although they fetch extraordinarily high prices. The winter black truffle is actually more of grayish-brownish black on the outside, with white spidery veins on the inside that indicate maturity (the summer variety will be of a more brownish color, but are the same size). It weights typically between 2 and 3oz. The Winter Black Truffle is highly sought after for its earthy, subtle aroma, and a taste once described as mixture of "chocolate and earth".

Winter White Truffle

This truffle is often called a "Piedmont Truffle" or the "White Truffle from Alba" or "Italian White Truffle", which indicates where the truffle originates, not the species of fungi. The only difference between summer and winter white truffles is that one is harvested in the summer and the other in the winter. This truffle is noted for its garlicky flavor, reminiscent of shallots, and also an intense earthy and musky aroma. Fresh white truffles are not a pure white, but more of a yellowish color, with a smooth exterior. The main disadvantage of Winter White truffles (or any white truffle for that matter) is that although their aroma is intense, it tends to fade pretty quickly, as opposed to black truffles, which are more subtle, but have a longer longevity.

Summer Black Truffle

Although not held in such high regards as the winter variety, summer black truffles are still a delicious and versatile ingredient. Depending on weather variations, the season for this truffle goes from May to the end of August. They grow among oak, hazelnut, chestnut, elm and poplar trees, like the winter variety. From the outside, it looks pretty much like the Winter Black truffle, with a knobby, roundish shape and dark brown skin. The flesh or interior of the truffle is yellowish-grey, with spidery white veins webbing around. Towards the end of the summer, the flesh turns a darker brown. The summer black truffle is not as spectacularly fragrant and aromatic as the white truffle, but it does have a very nice aroma - much more subtle, but still quite appealing. They are better utilized by being cooked, to bring out the most of that subtly earthy chocolaty flavor.

Summer White Truffle

Also known as the Marzuili truffle, this would probably be your best bet when going for summer truffles. Although not as highly aromatic as the Winter White truffle, the Summer White still has most of that pungency characteristic of white truffles. It is found in the same regions of Italy as the winter variety, primarily Piedmont, Tuscany and Marches in Italy, and is the exactly same variety of mushroom, only harvested during the summer instead of the winter (black truffles, on the other hand, are a different species altogether in the winter and in the summer). They are much more affordable than the winter variety, so it allows for more experimentation and more quantity. The flavor is sweet and with hints of garlic, with a musky fragrance. It tends to look the same as Winter White truffles, with the interior going from a smooth yellow color to a dark brown with white veins as the season progresses. As with other white truffles, they are best used sliced or shaved over already cooked dishes, to maximize the aroma of the truffles.

Many species of mushrooms look similar to truffles but are actually poisonous. Never eat a wild mushroom of any kind without the highly educated guidance of an expert on hand that can positively identify the species as edible. The best way to

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