Even as we speak, truffles are still being sliced over dishes of risotto, tagliatelle and polenta in some of the nation’s top restaurants.
The fungus in question is the white, or Alba, truffle, generally found in the Northern Italian region of Piemonte. It is distinctive for its powerful, herb and garlic-scented aroma, and can command prices upwards of $3,000 per pound. The black (or Perigord) truffle, the other major variety familiar to gastronomes, is found in southeastern France. Though slightly less expensive than its Alba counterpart, it is highly prized for its earthy, pungent character. One of the secrets of the culinary world is that more and more white truffles are being sourced from Croatia, on the Istrian Coast. Rumor has it that many of these are shipped to Piemonte and sold as Alba truffles, although the Italians vehemently deny this.
Traditionally, the appearance of truffles was a mystery. They materialized at specific times of the year near the roots of oak, beech, pine and poplar trees. Pigs were originally used to locate them, but they had a tendency to eat the truffles, so today they are hunted by specially trained dogs.
The cultivation of truffles, once thought to be impossible, is a burgeoning industry around the world—not surprising, considering the prices these fungi command. It’s difficult to inoculate an existing tree with truffle spores, so there are nurseries that specialize in selling inoculated saplings. Many Perigord truffles are now cultivated, and there’s a growing production of black truffles in Oregon. Napa is not far behind, as beleaguered vintners turn to truffles as a potentially better source of income than wine grapes. Could we ever reach a point where we have a truffle glut? Not likely, but it would be nice to return to the situation of France in 1900, when truffles were common in cookery rather than being reserved for the tables of the rich.
What do they taste like? White truffles are widely regarded to be an aphrodisiac. I can’t swear to this, but can attest that the overload of heady aromas can be quite seductive. Some years ago in France, I consumed an entire egg-sized black truffle, covered with puff pastry and smothered in a truffle sauce. It was a profound and amazing experience, similar to taking a bite out of the center of the earth.