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Truffle

 

 

white truffle washed and cut

Truffle describes a group of edible mycorrhizal (subterranean) mushrooms (genus Tuber, class Ascomycetes, division Mycota).

The ascoma (fruiting body) of truffles is highly prized as food. In 1825 Brillat-Savarin called the truffle "the diamond of the kitchen" and praised its aphrodisiac powers. (Physiology of Taste Meditation vi). While the aphrodisiac characteristics of truffles have not been established, it is still held in high esteem in colloquial French and northern Italian cooking, and in international haute cuisine.

Edible Usage

white truffle cut in slices
white truffle cut in slices

Because of their high price and their pungent taste, truffles are used sparingly. Paper-thin truffle slices may be inserted in meats, under the skins of roasted fowl, in foie gras preparations, in pâtés, or in stuffings. Truffle oil is an economical and popular way to enjoy their flavor.

The flavor of black truffles can be compared to Gorgonzola cheese, but with an earthy/cooked mushroom base note and without dairy notes. No description, however, has every fully sufficed to make their flavor imaginable without having tasted them in some quantity.

Methods of production

Truffles long eluded techniques of domestication, as Brillat-Savarin noted with his characteristic skepticism:

"The most learned men have sought to ascertain the secret, and fancied they discovered the seed. Their promises, however, were vain, and no planting was ever followed by a harvest. This perhaps is all right, for as one of the great values of truffles is their dearness, perhaps they would be less highly esteemed if they were cheaper.
"Rejoice, my friend," said I, "a superb lace is about to be manufactured at a very low price."
"Ah!" replied she, "think you, if it be cheap, that any one would wear it?" (Brillat-Savarin, 1825)

However, contrary to stubborn legends, truffles can be cultivated. As early as 1808, there were successful attempts to cultivate truffles, known in French as trufficulture. Men had long observed that truffles were growing among the roots of certain trees, under oak trees in particular, and indeed scientific research has proven that the truffles live in symbiosis with the host tree. In 1808, Joseph Talon, from Apt (département of Vaucluse) in southern France, had the idea to sow some acorns collected at the foot of oak trees known to host truffles in their root system. The experiment was successful: years later, truffles were found in the soil around the newly grown oak trees. In 1847, Auguste Rousseau of Carpentras (in Vaucluse) planted 7 hectares (17 acres) of oak trees (again from acorns found on the soil around truffle-producing oak trees), and he subsequently obtained large harvests of truffles. He received a prize at the 1855 World's Fair in Paris.

These successful attempts were met with enthusiasm in southern France, which possessed the sweet limestone soils and dry hot weather that truffles need to grow. In the late 19th century, a dramatic epidemic of phylloxera destroyed much of the vineyards in southern France. Another epidemic destroyed most of the silkworms in southern France, making the fields of mulberry trees useless. Thus, large tracts of land were set free for the cultivation of truffles. Thousands of truffle-producing trees were planted, and production reached peaks of hundreds of tonnes at the end of the 19th century. In 1890 there were 750 km² (185,000 acres) of truffle-producing trees.

In the 20th century however, with the growing industrialization of France and the subsequent rural exodus, many of these truffle fields (champs truffiers or truffières) returned to wilderness. The First World War also dealt a serious blow to the French countryside, killing 20% or more of the male working force. As a consequence of all these events, newly acquired techniques of trufficulture were lost. Also, between the two world wars, the truffle fields planted in the 19th century stopped being productive. (The average life cycle of a truffle-producing tree is 30 years.) Consequently, after 1945 the production of truffles plummeted, and the prices have skyrocketed, reaching the zenith that we know today. In 1900 truffles were used by most people, and on many occasions. Nowadays, they are a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, or used on very special occasions.

In the last 30 years, new attempts for a mass production of truffles have been started. Eighty percent of the truffles now produced in France come from specially planted truffle-fields. Nonetheless, production has yet to recover its 1900's peaks. The countryside in southern France is largely depopulated, with a lot of the lands in the hands of the descendants of the farmers. These descendants live in towns and cities and feel mostly unconcerned by the countryside. Local farmers are also opposed to a return of mass production, which would decrease the price of truffles. However, prospects for a mass production are immense. It is currently estimated that the world market could absorb 50 times more truffles than France currently produces. There are now truffle-growing areas in Spain, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia.

Looking for truffles in open ground is almost always carried with specially trained pigs or dogs. Pigs were the most used in the past, but nowadays farmers prefer to use dogs, which do not eat the truffles.

Kinds of truffles

There are various forms of truffles, even within France.

Connoisseurs consider that the best truffle is the Tuber melanosporum (black truffle), which comes almost only from Europe, essentially France (45% of production), then also Spain (35%), and Italy (20%). Small productions are also found in Slovenia and Croatia. In 1900, France produced around 1,000 metric tonnes (1,100 short tons) of Tuber melanosporum. Production has considerably diminished in one century, and nowadays production is usually around 20 metric tonnes (22 short tons) per year, with peaks at 46 metric tonnes (50 short tons) in the best years. 80% of the French production comes from southeast France: upper-Provence (départements of Vaucluse and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), part of Dauphiné (département of Drôme), and part of Languedoc (département of Gard); 20% of the production comes from southwest France: Quercy (département of Lot) and Perigord (département of Dordogne), the latter historically the most famous, but now in complete decline and superseded by Quercy. The largest truffle market in France (and probably also in the world) is at Richerenches in Vaucluse. The largest truffle market in southwest France is at Lalbenque in Quercy. These markets are busiest in the month of January when the black truffles have their highest perfume. Black truffles on these markets sell between 200 and 600 per kilogram ($110–$330 per pound), depending if its a bad or a good year for harvest.

In Piedmont (northern Italy), mild-flavored white truffles (Tuber magnatum,) are met with, which are very highly esteemed (illustration, right).

The Chinese truffle (Tuber sinensis, also sometimes called Tuber indicum) is mass harvested in China. It visually looks like the Tuber melanosporum, but its taste is bland, and its texture is chewy. Due to their low price, Chinese truffles are often exported to the West, but they should not be confused with Tuber melanosporum. Some truffle exporters or delicatessen shops sell Chinese truffles in which extracts of the real Tuber melanosporum are introduced. These fraudulent truffles are sold at a high price, pretending they are real Tuber melanosporum. Such practices are illegal, but unfortunately quite frequent. Another type of Chinese truffle is the Tuber himalayensis, which visually looks so much like the Tuber melanosporum that a microscope is needed to differentiate them, but whose taste is not as intense as the Tuber melanosporum. The Tuber himalayensis, however, is harvested in very small quantities in the Chinese Himalayas, and is not as frequently met on world markets as the Tuber sinensis. Finally, the third type of Chinese truffle is the Chinese summer white truffle, which does not have a scientific name yet. This truffle should not be confused with the much more expensive and less tasty Italian Tuber magnatum.

History

The Romans knew truffles. However, although Italy produced the Tuber melanosporum and the Tuber magnatum, the Romans only used the terfez (Terfezia bouderi), a mushroom which resembles truffles, which the Romans called a truffle, and which is sometimes called a "desert truffle", but is not actually a truffle. Terfez used in Rome came from Greece and especially from Libya, where the coastal climate was less dry in ancient times. Their substance is pale, tinged with rose. Unlike truffles, terfez have no taste of their own. The Romans used the terfez as a carrier of flavor, because the terfez have the property to absorb surrounding flavors. Indeed, Roman cuisine used a lot of spices and flavors, and terfez were perfect in that context.

The only trace of truffles in Medieval cooking is at the court of the popes in Avignon; though perhaps the black and subterranean truffles were avoided elsewhere as satanic, the papal kitchens adopted them when the popes relocated to Avignon, near the producing regions of upper-Provence. Truffles were honored at the court of King Francis I of France. However, it was not until the 17th century that Western (and in particular French) cuisine abandoned "heavy" oriental spices, and rediscovered the natural flavor of foodstuffs. Truffles were very popular in Paris markets in the 1780s, imported seasonally from truffle grounds, where peasants had long enjoyed their secret. They were so expensive they appeared only at the dinner tables of great nobles —and kept women, Brillat-Savarin noted characteristically. The greatest delicacy was a truffled turkey. "I have wept three times in my life," Rossini admitted. "Once when my first opera failed. Once again, the first time I heard Paganini play the violin. And once when a truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic."

Bowl of chocolate truffles
Bowl of chocolate truffles

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Truffle is also a chocolate confection, which is named after its physical resemblance with a black truffle.

 


 


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