Truffles used to be known as an expensive delicacy that one eats only in fancy restaurants. However, in recent years truffles have become better known and more readily available, perhaps due to the popularity of cooking shows where truffles are a common ingredient. Truffles are still quite expensive, and not available in ordinary shops. The easiest way to enjoy the taste of truffle is to use truffle oil which is nowadays sold in many well-equipped supermarkets and is spreading in popularity. So what are truffles? Why are they so luxurious? And why should we be interested in them?
A Tree-Loving Fungus
Truffles are fungi that grow underground in symbiosis with the roots of trees or shrubs. The reason we have found them in the first place is because their scent attracts animals, which dig them up and eat them. That is the truffle way of reproducing: the animal that eats truffles spread their spores in their faeces. The scent and taste of truffles are delicious to many animals, including humans. There are more than a hundred genera of fungi that are classified as truffles, though only a few varieties are of culinary value. Truffles used to be considered impossible to cultivate since they grow with trees, but a method to cultivate them was found by the end of the 18th Century in France. Pierre II Mauléon figured that if he took acorns from the oaks that grow with truffles and plants them in similar soil, the new trees should get truffles as well. He was right, and ever since then truffles have been cultivated especially in France, but nowadays also in New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Chile, South Africa, and the United States.
Types of truffles
Like any novel tastes, it is basically impossible to describe the taste of truffle to someone who has not tried them. However, the odour and flavour are often described as being in the ballpark of musky leather, nuts, caramelised cream, fried garlic, and the earthy taste of mushrooms. But a truffle differs radically from mushrooms because its flavour is much more intense, and the texture is entirely different. Truffles are hard and crunchy, which is why they are typically used in thin slices or shavings, or their flavour is infused in oil or butter. Truffles come in various colours, shapes and textures, and different species of truffles vary in taste. Often people only distinguish between white and black truffles, but there are many more types, and they differ significantly in culinary value. The most valued truffles are Winter White Truffle or Piedmont truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico), Périgord Truffle or Winter Black Truffle (Tuber melanosporum), Summer Black Truffle or Truffe de la St. Jean (Tuber aestivum), Summer White Truffle or Marzuili Truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico, Tuber Borchii), Chinese Black Truffle or Himalayan Truffle (Tuber indicum or Tuber sensiese) and Terfez Truffle or “black kame”, “brown kame” or “desert truffle” (Terfezia bouderi, terfezia spp, or Terfezia claveryi). Truffles grow all over the world, and the best truffles are determined by their variety, not by the country where they grow in. There can be variations in the quality of the truffles in particular regions across years, as the amount of rainfall and other environmental factors will influence the quality of the soil.