Earthly delights

Categories: Features

Sybil Kapoor on the majesty and mystique of the truffle, a fungus that can transform the humblest of dishes into the most exquisite of meals

In the lean cold days of a new year, it’s easy to forget the simple pleasures of good food and the company of friends. Being a little abstemious after the excesses of December does not mean that you have to forgo socialising or gustatory enjoyment. Quite the reverse: for me, moderation actually intensifies the pleasure of cooking and eating.

So, while others sip their kale juice and look longingly at sticky buns, indulge yourself by creating simple meals with the very best ingredients you can find. Who would not feel both virtuous and spoilt cooking dover sole with brown butter, lemon juice and wilted spinach, followed by a blush orange and pomegranate salad?

Perhaps the ultimate edible treat is a truffle. And now is the perfect time to indulge. As truffle importer and enthusiast Mario Prati, owner of Tartufaia, explains, “at this time of year, when demand drops, the price of truffles always falls, especially if it’s been a good year for them”.

One fragrant black or white truffle can magically transform a dish from the ordinary to the sublime, and it also goes a surprisingly long way due to its intense aroma. One medium-small black truffle, for example, is enough to flavour three exquisite meals for two people.

Buttery truffle risotto
Imagine dining on a buttery truffle risotto one night and a simple dish of creamy truffled tagliolini the next. A gorgeous sauce can be made for the latter by reducing homemade chicken stock to a flavoursome jus, pouring in some dry white wine, boiling it right down, then adding double cream and simmering until it is has thickened. A small amount of finely grated or sliced raw black truffle is added at the last minute to the warm sauce.

Whereas white truffles are best eaten raw, scattered over the finished dish, black truffles taste even better when subjected to a little heat and infused into other ingredients. Either can have a transformative effect on the most modest of ingredients. Add a scattering of white truffle to a humble plate of scrambled eggs, for example, and it becomes a dish fit for the gods.

However, a light hand is needed when adding any type of truffle, otherwise its intense woodland smell will dominate the dish to the exclusion of all else.

Perhaps as a result of the truffle’s elitist reputation, it is surrounded by mystique. There are decadent tales of its preparation from writers such as Alexandre Dumas. In his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, he recalls the famous French actress Mlle Georges skilfully cutting black Périgord truffles with a vermilion fork and a mother-of-pearl handled steel knife into paper thin leaves for a salad seasoned with olive oil, cayenne pepper and black pepper.

Aphrodisiac properties
As late as 1967, Raymond Oliver, renowned chef of Le Grand Véfour in Paris, claimed that black truffles had aphrodisiac properties, particularly if they were scraped, washed, soaked in cognac and eaten raw with salt. But then again, he also claimed that “no woman was ever a great cook”.

Technically, the truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean ascomycete fungus that grows underground in barren, stony soil in a mycorrhizal association with certain tree roots such as oak, beech and hazelnut. The actual plant is made up of a mass of miniscule filaments, or mycelium, that are invisible to the naked eye. These attach themselves via a mycorrhizal growth to the finest roots of the tree or shrub. This ensures that the fungus gains sugars from the tree and the tree gains minerals and nutrients from the fungus’s mycelium.

Since it lives underground, the truffle’s fruiting body releases a mixture of volatile compounds to attract animals who, tempted by its pheromone-like scent, dig up the tuber and spread its spores over a wider area. Hence the use of specially trained pigs and dogs to nose out the hidden truffles. These days dogs are preferred, as pigs tend to snaffle up prize specimens.

The economic value of a truffle is based on its scent, weight, colour and condition. There are currently about 180 different truffle species growing wild around the world. They vary greatly in aroma and taste, each with different woodland notes and scents.

Intense cep-like scent
The most expensive are tuber magnatum pico, a variety of white truffle, the most famous of which are Piedmont truffles, although they also grow in Tuscany, Marche, Umbria, Istria and several Balkan regions. These appear in the autumn and winter. They have a highly volatile aroma and are best shaved over subtle tasting dishes that can act as a foil to their intense cep-like scent, such as buttered tagliatelle or veal scallopini.

In the early spring, another white truffle, Tuber borchii vittadini, appears. It’s often found in limestone pine forests, particularly in Tuscany, Romagna and Marche, but unlike magnatum pico, it turns darker and has a persistent, pungent, garlic-like aroma.

The most famous black truffle is the Périgord truffle, Tuber melanosporum vittadini, but it too can be found in myriad different countries including Italy and Spain. Its season can run from November to March in Europe and May to August in Australia. According to Mario, the latter have slight eucalyptus-like notes.

Another popular but cheaper truffle is the Tuber aestivum vittadini, known as the English truffle or summer black truffle. It has a darker skin but paler flesh than the Périgord truffle and a mild woody, almost oaky scent. It’s harvested in the summer months in Britain and Europe. Most chefs cook it to bring out its subtle flavour.

Sniff and carefully inspect
The best approach when buying truffles is to sniff and carefully inspect them. Only buy attractive undamaged specimens with a delicious aroma. Once home, store them carefully wrapped in kitchen paper in an airtight container on the top shelf of your fridge and use within a few days. Truffles contain a lot of water and produce condensation that needs to be dried regularly. They will shrink in size within a matter of weeks.

You can extend their culinary use by infusing whole eggs or risotto rice with a single clean black or white truffle. Place the rice or eggs in a container with the truffle. Cover and leave for 48 hours for maximum flavour. Eggshells are porous and absorb some of the truffle’s aroma.

Opinions differ on the best way to prepare truffles. All truffles should be scrubbed clean of any dirt with a nailbrush. Some may require washing and a further scrub before being dried with kitchen paper. White truffles should be left unpeeled, but some writers advocate peeling whole black truffles before use. Some like to cook whole black truffles and will use the cooking liquor and peelings to flavour dishes, but there are also recipes that keep them whole and slice them raw into a hot dish.

All are agreed that truffles taste delicious with cream, butter, cheese, eggs and meat. The latter can range from chicken roasted with black truffle slices slipped under its skin to a goose or duck liver terrine. Any form of fat will carry their flavour well.

The perfect excuse
Truffles also taste good with dry white wine, madeira, sherry and brandy. Simon Hopkinson gives a wonderful recipe for preserving black truffles in all four in his book Roast Chicken and Other Stories: Second Helpings (2001)—the perfect excuse, if any were needed, to continue spoiling yourself for the rest of the year.