Drawn together: the truffle slicer

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the truffle slicer

Mario Prati, Tartufaia Truffles

I started Tartufaia Truffles at Borough Market nine years ago. We began just selling truffles, though we also sell wild mushrooms now—look out for our porcini when in season!

Our main source of truffles is Italy, where we are able to get fresh truffles all year round across the seven different species. We also source truffles from England, Spain, France and Australia; there’s quite a variety.

I’m from Rimini—a coastal town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. From there, you would have to travel 30 minutes to an hour towards the Apennine mountains for truffles. To be honest, I didn’t really like truffle when I first tasted it around the age of 10. I suppose my love came from working as a chef for around 10 years before starting Tartufaia.

Truffles need to be sliced really thin—shaved, really—so chefs use a truffle slicer to get the finest shavings possible. Traditionally these are handheld tools, which have a guarded blade set at a very acute angle. They’re usually made of metal, though sometimes you’ll see ones with wooden handles.

Illustration of a truffle slicer

Pheromone-like smells
I suppose there are a number of reasons why you need to slice truffles finely. Firstly, it’s because it’s an expensive item, a luxury, so you need a little to go a long way!

But it’s also because fine shavings are the best way to appreciate the truffles. You don’t really cook a truffle—it’s generally warmed through a dish, or shaved over the top of warm eggs or pasta, which helps it to release the pheromone-like smells that people crave. Sliced thinly, there is plenty of surface area showing.

The slicing is best done at the last minute. A truffle will retain flavour after slicing, but that amazing smell is only released when it’s fresh. This partly explains why restaurants often do the slicing at the table—so the customer is left to appreciate it. Plus, of course, doing it at the table adds an element of show, ceremony and tradition, which is actually really important if you think about how prized good truffles are.

The inner chef
I have to admit I don’t use a classic truffle slicer. I prefer using a Japanese mandolin, which is perhaps a little sharper, and I can also use it for other things like fresh mushrooms and root vegetables. Maybe that’s the chef in me.

That said, the reason a restaurant wouldn’t use a mandolin front of house is the point about show-manship—large, plastic mandolins wouldn't look so good at the table, and also you can’t really hold it in one hand and shave over someone’s plate like you can with a slicer.

But I wouldn’t expect a truffle slicer to be a standard item in Italian home kitchens, except perhaps in Piedmont, where truffles are the most common. To really need a specialist truffle slicer in your kitchen drawer is like the ultimate sign of luxury, isn’t it?!