The epitome of gastronomy and prized by chefs, truffles are regarded by many as a diamond in the kitchen. From fries and pizza, you’ve probably seen truffle accents on menus from the simplest to the most elaborate. Fresh truffles, however, are reserved for the most special culinary occasions—they’re most likely to show up on menus from fall through winter. So, what exactly are they?
For the simplest explanation, truffles are frequently associated with mushrooms, but they are much more complex. A truffle is indeed in the fungi family (well, actually it’s the fruit of fungi), and it grows entirely underground in a beautiful relationship with the roots of certain types of trees (oak, beech, and hazel). They’re a precarious crop to grow and difficult to harvest. Truffle farmers roam through the trees with highly trained dogs who can sniff out buried truffle treasure. It’s not the easiest task, which in part explains their kinda crazy cost.
Coveted for their rarity, the culinary allure stems from that specific aroma and elusive flavor. Described as sublime and mysterious, truffles have a unique taste, reminiscent of earthy mushrooms with more depth and complexity. They are certainly not for everyone, though!
Where are they grown?
Italians have been harvesting truffles for thousands of years. Italy’s northern region of Piedmont is home to the prized white truffle (tartufo bianco), the most rare and expensive truffle in the world, in some cases commanding several thousand dollars per pound. Fun fact: The city of Alba hosts an International White Truffle Fair, taking place every fall.
France is home to the famous and equally alluring Perigord black truffle. Grown in the Dordogne region, the season runs December through March—it’s not too late to visit the Fête de la Truffe this in January. Besides the black truffle, French growers also cultivate the summer black truffle, which is somewhat more affordable.
In the foothills of Dixieland, from Virginia to Tennessee, we discovered quite a few enthusiasts committed to cultivating truffles in the states. Most of these farms are still new, including those located in California and Oregon, where growers hope to make truffles more accessible all year. Consider kicking off January with other gastronomes at the Oregon Truffle Festival or the Napa Truffle Festival.
Cooking with fresh truffles
It’s unlikely that you’ll happen upon truffles at your local farmer’s market, so you may have to do some online searching depending on where you live. Like any fresh produce, truffles begin to lose their sparkle the moment they are pulled from the ground, so if you’re gonna want to use them up quickly. A few tips:
- Use truffles as the finishing touch to be added at the end of cooking.
- Cream, butter and oil are all a go.
- Avoid mixing truffles with acidic elements like citrus or vinegar.
- Think simple.
- Consider storing your fresh truffle with a couple of uncooked eggs and a stick of butter and let those flavors seep in. Hello, delicious breakfast.
- Truffles will pair best with warming dishes like risotto, mashed potatoes, pizza, and any cheesy pasta.
Can’t find whole truffles?
Give some of these truffle-esque products a try. Use a pinch or drizzle as you would fresh shavings. Remember, a little goes a long way.
Truffle salt is a salt with tiny fragrant pieces of black or white truffle mixed in. We love it everything from scrambled eggs to roasted potatoes, popcorn, and sliced avocado.
Truffle oil usually comes in small two or three ounce bottles—it delivers the taste and smell of real truffles with a derived “essence” but is not actually made from real truffles. It’s still delicious (see: this pizza).
Truffle cheeses are rare, but you can still find them. Try these: Moliterno Black Truffle Pecorino, Boschetto al Tartufo, Venetian Sottocenere. Serve it on your cheeseboard. People will be happy.
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