Product Guide: Truffles
Mario from Tartufaia tells us about this most famous of fungi
What is a truffle?
A truffle—not to be confused with the chocolate treats sold by Chocolicious—is the fruiting body of an underground fungus and, unpromising though that description might sound, is one of the greatest gifts served up by Mother Earth. Found most abundantly in parts of Italy and France, their colour, size and flavour vary hugely according to when and where they are grown. At Tartufaia, Mario Prati sells many types of Italian truffle, mainly sourced from the Acqualagna and Marche regions. "Most people think truffles are either just white and black, but they're not—there are many, many different types," he says. "They all grow under different trees in different areas at different times of the year, and have different flavours and smells accordingly. The main thing that affects the flavour is the type of tree they grow under." Varieties of winter white and winter black truffles are the most sought-after and expensive, due to their exceptional flavour and their relative lack of abundance. Summer truffles are more plentiful, and hence more affordable.
How do you find them?
Traditionally with female pigs, whose keen sense of smell—"their noses are 20 times more sensitive than ours," says Mario—and inability to distinguish between a truffle and an attractive gentleman pig, whose smell they mirror, make finding truffles relatively easy. There is a problem though: when the truffles are found, the pigs "get all excited, and the only way to stop them biting the truffle is to hold their mouth"—an easy enough task with a small pig, but a high risk approach to take with a grown up. As a result, most truffle hunters in Italy use trained dogs. "It is expensive, because the dogs don't have as strong a sense of smell, so you have to train the dogs, and you have to feed them truffles in the process. But they will bring you more money back in."
How do you serve truffles?
According to Mario, simplicity is key. To lose this most prized of flavours amid a whole host of competing ingredients would be criminal. "You need something quite plain that brings out that flavour," he says. He recommends shaving a bit of truffle into a very simple risotto, pasta or scrambled eggs—"truffle pickers, when they come back with their truffles, will make some scrambled eggs so that they can check the quality." The fresher they are, the better—truffles lose about 10 to 20 per cent of their weight over 24 hours. "I get them within 18 hours of being picked," says Mario, "which is often fresher than you would get them in Italy."
We've heard that truffles are the food of love. Is that true?
In theory, says Mario, if animals can be aroused by the scent of truffles then perhaps we can be too. "Some people have suggested that up until about 100 years ago we did react to truffles, but now pollution and perfumes and so on mean our sense of smell is worsening. In Venice, for example, they used to have big bowls of truffles around at parties, just for that reason." But while the anecdotal evidence for their aphrodisiac powers is weighty—Napoleon swore by them, as did the Ancient Greeks—the scientific evidence is less so. That said, there's no harm in trying—cooking up a black truffle soufflé is hardly going to go down badly.
What about truffle oil—how is that made?
Well therein lies a story. "You cannot make truffle oil with actual truffles," says Mario. "It's a myth. Truffles produce a pheromone-like smell which is very volatile, and it only sticks to animal fat, hence we can use it in our truffle butter. But truffle oil is olive oil with an added essence." At Tartufaia, Mario tried out 50 types of essence before alighting on the one he sells. "It's the closest thing, I think, to the taste of white truffle itself, although I can still tell the difference." Truffle oil is a nicely economical way for getting that lovely essence of truffle into your cooking, though in practice many unscrupulous producers add bit of dried up truffle to the bottle just to justify a price hike, even though it's completely dead and serves no purpose. "It's simply so they can say the oil contains truffle. It's a gimmick," says Mario.