Yes, pigs really do hunt truffles. Yes, they really can cost US$50 each. And yes, they are worth it.
French connoisseur Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin dubbed the rough, clumpy little tuber the “diamond of the kitchen”, and foodies since antiquity have struggled to cultivate enough of them. Although in modern times truffles have become easier to grow and harvest, they remain a true culinary delicacy with gourmet chefs (and ambitious blog readers!) around the world vying for the finest specimens to use in their kitchens.
Of course, truffles don’t come cheap and you might wonder how a few small shavings could be worth so much dosh. But the truth is, there really is no flavour like the truffle – a truly essential tasting experience for any foodie.
What is a truffle?
Truffles are the fruit of certain types of fungi that flourish in rocky soil among the roots of certain trees, particularly oaks. Many orchards of oak have been planted specifically to entice truffle growth.
Fortunately for Asian readers, China is the world’s top truffle producer at 5 million tonnes per year, followed by Italy and the United States. Depending on its weight, a single, fresh truffle can go for between US$30 and US$75. This ginormous black truffle found in Australia went for as much as US$2500.
We use “found” instead of “grown” because even in the most fruitful forests, truffles – like diamonds – must be hunted rather than merely harvested. And, yes, truffle-hunting pigs are a real thing: truffles produce a compound similar to a sex hormone found in male pigs, and female pigs naturally seek out, dig up and (unless watched closely or muzzled) eat truffles. Dogs, too, can be trained to seek out these pungent-smelling delicacies, which raises the question…
What do truffles taste like and how are they eaten?
“Pungent”, “musky” and “earthy” are some of the most popular truffle descriptors. No matter which term you use, everyone can agree: truffles are strong. Even a small amount of truffle shavings sprinkled onto a dish can bring it alive with a bouquet of living, truffly aromas.
However, these flavours are also very delicate, and do not hold up well to time or heat, so don’t cook your truffles. Instead, slice or grate them raw and as fresh as possible on warm, mild dishes like pasta, omelettes, souffles and risotto. They also go well with sauces and soups (the mild heat of the food helps release the flavours). Wash with water, but do not peel.
Truffles are served fresh or preserved in a light brine. Fresh truffles are still living and although they are more expensive and harder to come by, they have a stronger, purer truffle taste. Preserved truffles are, of course, not living and will lose their aroma after a few hours.
Where do I buy truffles and how do I store them?
The best places to hunt for truffles are farmers’ markets and specialty grocers in autumn and early winter (truffle season), although it may take a bit of searching. Fresh truffles are often flown in from the farm to market overnight. Preserved truffles are somewhat easier to come by. Either way, be ready to part with a wad of cash.
You can store fresh truffles in the freezer, ideally in a glass jar, to retain their flavours for as long as two weeks. You can also preserve them whole in light oil for a fortnight, says this handy guide by The Scotsman.
Black or white?
There are, of course, several varieties of truffle, but the most common are black truffles and white (or Alba) truffles. Black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) have a softer and (relatively) more subtle flavour, while white truffles (Tuber magnatum) are somewhat sharper and more pungent. Here is a guide to several truffle varieties.