Truffles are often associated with rich, dense chocolate balls rolled in cocoa dust. Indeed many of these confections resemble real truffles — but in appearance only.
The real thing is a pungent fungus that grows underground, located only by the aid of truffle dogs trained to unearth the prized fungi. Perhaps the most simplistic description of the world’s most costly food is that it is an aromatic underground mushroom.
Truffles are the fruiting bodies of underground fungi growing on a living host, usually oak or hazel tree roots. The fungi help the host tree absorb nutrients from the soil, and in return host trees provide nutrients to the fungi in the form of sugar and energy, thus establishing a symbiotic relationship between spore and tree.
Until recently, Italy and France held total monopolies on truffle production, but that is changing.
In 2007, Robert Chang and Paul Thomas, an internationally known truffle scientist, founded the American Truffle Company.
Based in San Francisco, the company harvested its first black Perigord truffle in December from the Ortellini truffle orchard in Sonoma, Calif.
Thomas pioneered a new system to inoculate trees with truffle spores, thus making truffle farming a viable option for regions other than Italy and France.
Using Thomas’ system, there are now an estimated 200 fledgling truffle operations in America. These ventures have been so successful in Napa and Sonoma that the region hosts an annual Napa Truffle Festival, now in its ninth year.
One Italian family, the Urbani family, is responsible for 70 percent of the current truffle trade, marketing both French and Italian truffles. Involved in the truffle trade since 1850, the Urbani family has locations worldwide, including New York, Japan and other countries in the EU.
Truffles are big business. In 2007 a Macau casino owner paid $330,000 for an approximately 3.3-pound Italian white truffle. It should be pointed out this was a rare white truffle because of its unusually large size.
Urbani New York currently offers 12 ounces of fresh white truffles for $1,000 or 16 ounces of black truffles for $1,000. One-ounce portions are offered for around $100.
Why is this food commodity — the darling of foodies and restaurateurs — so pricey? Naturally occurring truffles are scarce. They are labor intensive to locate and extract from the earth, and it is believed that climate change has greatly reduced yields.
Further, legitimate truffle traders have to compete with illegitimate ones who sell truffles on the black market. Many producers’ harvests have been devastated by poachers. Their valuable trained truffle-scenting dogs are also prized targets for thieves.
When dug from the ground, truffles are not pretty. They rather look like excrement. But they have been consumed by humans since ancient times.
Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch, who lived from 46 to 120 CE, wrote of the belief that truffles were the result of lightning hitting the ground and sending energy to lumps of clay.
Pigs were first used to sniff out and find truffles, but they have no portion control and were prone to eat significant portions of the marketable harvest. Dogs are now used for that task, and do not find truffles as appealing as their predecessor pigs.
Top restaurants and gourmet cooks purchase expensive truffles because they are rich in umami. Umami is an indescribable, savory, rich, yummy taste — neither sweet, sour, salty nor bitter. Like a fine old Port, a little bit goes a long way.
Truffles are grated or thinly shaved by cooks and chefs over an array of foods, but they are most often used in creamy dishes like mashed potatoes, pasta alla carbonara and risotto.
Truffle butter, made by blending butter with truffle shavings, makes an excellent topping for baked potatoes, bread, steaks or burgers.
If not up to spending mega bucks for a fresh truffle, consider truffle salt, truffle butter or truffle pastes, which can be ordered from most online food purveyors, including Dean & DeLuca, Williams-Sonoma, and Urbani Truffles USA.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.