The French call them the “Diamonds of the kitchen” and 60 Minutes named them ‘the most expensive food in the world’. Truffles can offen garner more money than some high-end champagnes. In 2014, an anonymous bidder from Hong Kong shelled out $120,000 for two pieces of white truffle weighing a total of about two pounds. Whether they’re called trufffe in French, tartufo in Italian, trufa in Spanish or truffles in English, these mis-shaped, lumpy looking, smelly balls (pun intended) often get chefs and diners so giddy, that they’re willing to sell their unborn first child just for a little taste. Let’s explore some more…
Truffles are subterranean fungi that grow in the shadows of oak trees. The word comes from the Latin ‘tuber’ because it looks like a swelling, and truffles are part of the tuber family of fungi. Truffles can be found in select areas of the world, but they’re most commonly known for coming from the Italian and/or French countryside. One of the reasons why they are so expensive is because they are hard to grow and hard to find (and becoming harder to find because of climate change). Truffles are sniffed out by specially trained dogs, usually Lagotto Romangnolo dogs, and often only at night (they used to use pigs, but pigs would often eat the truffles, so they had to resort to plan B). Also, once the truffle is found and unearthed, it must get to its destination ASAP because truffles begin to lose water as soon as they are exposed to air (truffles are made of 90% water). Truffles, like most women, are very fragile and require proper treatment. The proper way to store a truffle is wrapped in a paper towel to absorb excess moisture and stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator (don’t wrap truffle in plastic or they will ‘sweat’ and spoil).
How do they taste, you might be asking? The taste of truffle lies in the “Umami” category of taste – as they have a very earthy flavor profile. There are five primary taste sensations including: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami. Umami is the most recently identified and accepted of the basic tastes (look you learned something new today).
Knowing truffles: there are four types of truffles: black (winter) truffles, black summer truffles, Burgundy truffles and white truffles.
Black winter truffles (also known as Perigord truffles or winter truffles). Season: mid-November to mid-March. Regions: Italy and France. This truffle is the second-most commercially valuable species (next to write truffles). This truffle is named after the Périgord region in France where it’s most commonly found, growing near oak and hazelnut trees. Available for six to nine months of the year, this truffle has a pungent aroma and a strong taste. Some would describe it as having an earthy, subtle aroma, and tasting of ‘chocolate and earth’. Unlike white truffles, black truffles can be cooked and even canned. The taste can be described as earthy, musty, nutty, funky, and even chocolaty with hints of dried mushrooms.
Black summer truffles. Season: May-August. Regions: Italy and France. This truffle is one of the most common and least expensive and can be cultivated. It’s not overwhelmingly potent in its flavor or aroma and is therefore, mostly used as a garnish. Its flavor profile is lightly nutty and woody. Unlike winter truffles, which many modern chefs feel should not be cooked, black summer truffles develop a stronger flavor and aroma if they’re cooked.
Burgundy truffles. Season: September to January. Region: Italy and France. These truffles have an intense, hazelnut-like aroma and are highly prized for their gastronomic qualities. They have a dark, rough skin with a light coffee-colored flesh veined with white. The flavor profile pairs best shaved thinly over pasta, risotto, egg and/or potato dishes. Picking season goes from September until December.
White truffles (Italian truffles or Alba truffles). Season: October-December. Region: Northern and Central Italy, mainly from Alba in the Piedmont region. These truffles are the most expensive truffle. These bad boys can garner as much as $3,000/pound and often inspire a big black market (the high-end industry has spawned quite a controversy where tax evasion, nighttime heists, counterfeits, and sabotage are not uncommon). Reason being, they are very rare and more reliant on weather than many other truffles. They are typically found in the Langhe and Montferrat areas of northern Italy around the Piedmont region, as well as in Tuscany near certain trees. Currently, the USA is the third world-wide for truffle harvest volume. The aroma can be described as cheesy, garlicky, and funky and uses include shaving over pasta or risotto. The season is only three to four months (Sept – December/January but can end sooner), and shelf life is only about 10 days long, but the truffle will start to lose flavor after the fifth day.
Where to buy truffles:
Eataly: is known for supplying truffles throughout the year.
Wegmans stores. (About twenty Wegman’s stores carry truffles).
Urbani (online, and a flagship store in NYC).
Central Market: Texas
8 Best Places for black truffles in 2019: https://www.thespruce.com/best-places-to-buy-black-truffles-4164684
Here are a few select restaurants where you can find truffles on the menu:
New York City:
Oak Tuscan Truffle Restaurant (West Village): this recently opened (August 2018) Italian restaurant is known for putting shaved truffle on every dish on the menu, 10 grams to be exact (yes, you read that correctly). The owners, Rudy Accornero and his partner Svetlana Voloshyna, take their 14-seat lounge very seriously. In fact, born in Rome, Accornero has lived between NYC and Italy for the past ten years and makes it his priority to source some of the best truffles from Italy.
Del Posto (Chelsea): Italian fine dining restaurant by Joseph and Lidia Bastianich, this restaurant offers some of the best pasta dishes you’ll ever have. Truffle dishes include their tortellini di Zucca with black truffle and potato gnocchi with black truffle butter. They also celebrate white truffle season by hosting a five-course tasting menu in December. Each dish is finished off with freshly shaved white truffles.
Chicago and Boston: Eataly
Seasonally opened Il Tartufo E Il Vino in Eataly. This pop-up restaurant located in Eataly is open during white truffle season, November until late December. A wide variety of truffle featured dishes are featured, including a pre-fix menu, which are paired with wines from the same Piedmont region. Boston. Chicago.
RPM (Mount Vernon): this elegant, classy, and spacious, Milan, Italy inspired restaurant offers a variety of options, but really focuses on its pasta and seasonally inspired dishes. The restaurant gives you the option to add truffles to any dish during summer truffle season.
Toscana Divino (Brickell): this contemporary Tuscan restaurant offers a variety of high-end dishes. The restaurant boasts that they only source and serve high-quality, seasonal, and locally sourced ingredients. Truffle dishes include burrata and black truffle and risotto mushroom and truffle.
The French Laundry: the ‘mecca’ restaurant in the food industry, the list of chefs who cut their teeth here is a who’s who of the culinary world. This 60 seat, Thomas Keller restaurant is more like a temple than a place to eat. There are two standard nine- course tasting menus available each day, neither of which uses the same ingredient twice. Many items on the tasting menu have shaved truffles on top, including the white truffle risotto.
34 Mayfair: A modern-day classic since its opening in the fall of 2011, the restaurant focuses on meat, fish and seasonal ingredients, and hosts a contemporary art collection, as well as an open kitchen. The bar has been garnering awards and is also a host to the house painest every evening with a jazz trio Saturday and Sunday. The food is said to be spectacular and the presentations second to none. Try the lobster macaroni with shaved black truffle (if that isn’t heaven in your mouth, I don’t know what is!)