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Truffles of the World

 

 

Truffles are the underground equivalents of mushrooms which emerge above ground.  Both are edible, but for ecological reasons, truffles have an intensely strong scent that is attractive to certain animals; it also smells extremely pleasant to people, making them highly desirable. Nutritionally, truffles are not essential to the human diet; however, people consider food to be more than just a nutritional requirement.  We often desire foods that taste delicious regardless of their nutrient value, and most of us tend to love foods with rich, and especially, intriguing flavours.

 

First encounters with truffles are surprising. They do not appeal visually, looking like root vegetables or compacted lumps of soil (the genus name is derived from the Latin ‘tuber’ meaning ‘lump’), yet the unexpected scent is disturbingly attractive. The perplexing quality of the truffle aroma cannot be adequately conveyed by verbal description. In Roman times (300 BCE), Epicureans, devoted to sensual pleasure, likened the scent to that of the tousled sheets of a brothel bed! Rather over imaginative perhaps, but individuals with a keen sense of smell can detect the sweaty sexual quality that makes truffles so irresistible.

 

The finest truffle aroma is a delicate and rich combination that is initially ethereal-wine sweet-fruity, then creamy roasted malty-nutty, sometimes mildly burnt coffee-cocoa, with a very faint musty-mushroom note if at all, leading to the dominant savoury-musky quality, reminiscent of earthy asparagus and cabbage, very mellow asafoetida and garlic and slightly of seaweed, while stronger flavoured truffles also have distinctive mossy and smoky notes. The aroma bears some resemblance to the fougere (fern) group of perfumes.

 

Another group of related edible underground fungi are the less flavoursome terfas that grow in Mediterranean deserts as opposed to truffles growing in north temperate forests. An older European name for truffle is ‘nut fungus’, and terfas are sometimes casually called 'desert truffles' which can be confusing since they are a distinct group. Terfas are intermediate between truffles and mushrooms in both flavour and price.

 

There are basically two types of truffles, white and black, with a range of variations between them. The best flavoured types occur in Europe, with others in Asia and North America. The most highly prized is the winter white truffle from Piedmont in Italy, followed by the winter black truffle from Perigord in France. These two represent the finest items in gourmet cuisine - the most desirable delicacies on the planet! However, the great difficulty in finding them and consequently their relatively high price is a strong deterrence to enjoying truffles. Truffles are the most expensive food in the world. At an average peak price of about €50 per gram for winter white truffle, a mouthful of a fine quality truffle dish may be equivalent to the price of ten full meals. That is a very significant cost differential indeed. In spite of this, infrequent consumption by careful purchase is still affordable for most of us, and they are one of life's rare delights that is worth experiencing. Also, there are over a dozen types of culinary truffle, not all of which command such staggering prices.

 

Unfortunately, there is one serious problem that spoils our enjoyment of this pleasure. In Italy they say that white truffles are “traded like drugs, and raided by thugs.” Any desirable item that is rare and expensive will provoke cheap and inferior imitations by unscrupulous exploiters. In the case of truffles, the widespread use of fake truffle oil, made by the addition of a synthetic compound (2,4-dithiapentane) to a bland oil, in misleading 'truffle-scented' dishes has corrupted many people’s sense of what they think is the true truffle taste. Even enhancing real truffles with this chemical additive to reduce cost and entice the uninitiated, often carried out by celebrity chefs more interested in fame than finesse, will ruin the true taste. The artificial flavour has an exaggerated pungency that is contrary to the natural wholesome flavour, and this corrupting practice will cause subsequent consumption of unadulterated real truffles to be an underwhelming experience. In addition, with currently available gene sequencing technology, there is also the present risk of commercial companies attempting to genetically engineer another fungus to create an unnatural truffle flavour, in an attempt to further exploit the lucrative market.

 

Some people do not care if they ingest artificial additives or consume GM (genetically modified) foods, but for those who do care, this website is intended to provide clear basic information, comprehensible to non-connoisseur-experts that will be helpful for the discerning purchase and enjoyment of truffles.

 

 

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Note: A French chocolate confection created in 1895, shaped like a walnut with assorted sweet fillings and liqueur, is also known as CHOCOLATE TRUFFLE, meaning lumpy chocolate. An earlier French ice-cream dessert created in 1800, with two or more flavours of ice-cream with a frozen strawberry in the centre, is also known as TARTUFO (truffle in Italian). Both chocolate truffles and ice-cream truffles are not related to the fungi.