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August 21, 2008

Truffle Eating Guide


Sophia Banay on Portfolio.com tells you what you need to know before you start dropping upwards of $3,000 a pound on one of the world's most expensive foods.

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    Eat Sheet: Truffles

    How to choose, use, and enjoy one of the most expensive delicacies in the world

    Last year, a diner at Manhattan’s of-the-moment Waverly Inn was shocked to learn that his macaroni and cheese rang in at $55. The down-home dish was slathered in shaved truffles, a detail that he hadn’t noticed on the no-prices menu.

    Some who heard (and repeated) the story marveled that mac and cheese could cost so much. The big mystery for truffle connoisseurs: How could anyone miss that pungent presence in a dish?

    Harvested and prized for more than 2,000 years, truffles — mushrooms that grow underground — are the second-most expensive raw foodstuff in the world, after saffron, says Paulo Lima, marketing director at Appennino Funghi & Tartufi, an Italian truffle trading firm. The price of a pound of white truffles has averaged $3,200 in recent years, a number that reflects the rarity and mysterious reproductive habits of wild truffles, which make them hard to cultivate; the labor-intensive harvesting process; and their declining availability.

    Wild truffles are harvested all over the world, from the western United States to China, but France and Italy, where they grow in open meadows and dense forests, respectively, are the best-known sources. These highly coveted fungi germinate 10 to 35 inches underground on the roots of any of a dozen varieties of trees. When uncovered, they look like balls of soil and range in size from a pea to a potato.

    The global market for this sought-after specialty food is more than $2 billion, Lima estimates. Global gourmands, especially those in New York City, the largest consumer of truffles after Italy, pay through the nose for the delicacies thanks to their earthy, rich, mushroomy essence.

    Picking Perfectly: Make sure your truffle feels heavy for its size; that means it’s fresher, because its natural moisture hasn’t yet evaporated. It should also be solid and firm, without any soft spots; be certain it’s intact and clear of mud — unscrupulous vendors will sometimes stuff holes with dirt. If it has no aroma, don’t buy it, advises Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation. And research in advance what your desired truffle looks like. Some sellers have been known to pass off cheap Chinese fare for rarer or more expensive varieties.

    Savoring by Season: Each of the four commercially available truffles has a distinct growing season and is only available fresh at that time. White truffles (which have never been successfully domesticated) are in season between late September and December. Black winter truffles are available from November through February. Black summer truffles, the most bountiful kind, are in season between June and October. Bianchetti, or Tuscan truffles, are in season from January through April.

    The Best of the Best: Due to their rarity, their inability to be farmed, and their complex taste, white truffles are by far the most desired and expensive variety of the delicacy. While black truffles are known for their earthy taste and texture, white truffles exude an unusual aroma, combining notes of earth with honey, garlic, and hay.

    Wild Things: Truffle farms are sometimes regarded with a degree of skepticism by connoisseurs of the highly prized fungi—especially those in the United States, which aren’t as old or practiced as their European counterparts. Wild truffles are prized for fragrance and flavor; their domestic counterparts — grown on the roots of trees “inoculated” with truffle spores — are seen as less flavorful. While domestic truffles are sometimes harvested before they’ve had time to fully develop, farming plays a major role in today’s industry: About four-fifths of all black truffles on the market are cultivated.

    The Raw or the Cooked: To cook a white truffle is to commit a culinary crime: Heat spoils the pungent taste. White truffles are generally shaved thinly over the top of a simple pasta dish to preserve their intoxicating scent. Black truffles (with a subtler smell and a texture that lends itself to cooking) and black summer truffles (known for their nutty flavor) can be shaved and eaten raw or cooked. Tuscan truffles are almost always cooked because heat doesn’t diminish their pronounced flavor.

    Delectable Dishes: Because truffles have come predominantly from Italy or France, they are usually included in dishes from those countries (and are guaranteed to steal the show). In Piedmont, the classic white truffle dish is an egg tagliatelle; the noodles are made with a huge number of egg yolks, tossed in butter, and covered with shavings. Black truffles are often paired with foie gras, filet mignon, or pâté. Squab, venison, and other woodsy, gamey meats make good partners too. But basic versions of macaroni and cheese, scrambled eggs, and even buttered bread also benefit from a dose of the delicacy.

    Wine Wisdom: The wines that tend to go best with truffles are also from their native regions. Wines from Bordeaux, which have intense notes of truffle in them, pair well with hearty truffle recipes. For white truffles, wines like Barolo or Barbaresco, from the principle white-truffle-producing regions of Italy, are classic choices.

    Bargain Shopping: To save money, sample black summer truffles instead of white: They sell for $320 to $1,200 a pound. You won’t need more than a few ounces for a small dinner. You can buy them at specialty food stores like Dean & Deluca. Davis also recommends Buon Italia in New York’s Chelsea Market.

    Smart Substitution: Truffle oils are almost never made with real truffles, and artificial flavorings are a poor substitute. If you don’t want to spring for genuine truffle oil, turn to truffled cheeses or butters, which often contain chunks of truffle. In New York, Murray’s Cheese carries a truffle-packed pecorino from Guido Pinzani, a Tuscan cheesemaker; truffle importers like Appennino and Urbani Tartufi produce good truffled butter.

    Savvy Storage: Lima advises wrapping a fresh truffle in a paper towel and keeping it inside an airtight container in the refrigerator. The aroma deteriorates daily, so serve it fresh within a week or cooked within a month. (Discard it once it grows mold.)


[via Milena Castulovich who, like Oscar Wilde, has very simple tastes; to paraphrase: "Only the best."

August 21, 2008 at 04:01 AM | Permalink


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