|Known around the world as the "Black Diamond", "White Diamond", "Black Pearl", "Fragrant Nugget" and many other names reflecting our adoration of truffles; Truffle mushrooms are truly one of nature's miracles.
Premium truffles are found mostly in France, Spain and Italy. Secondary markets include China, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Northern Africa, and the United States. Preferring a warm climate, free of frost and sheltered from summer storms, truffles develop in the root system of certain trees, primarily oaks and hazelnut trees, and occasionally certain pines, willows, chestnuts, beech, red alder and poplars.
Truffles grow in random locations as much as one foot below ground in the root system of the host trees and therefore must be discovered by the trained nose of a pig or dog. Dogs are more commonly used for truffle hunting today, as they can be more easily trained to simply find the truffles and not eat them.
The most well known and highly prized of the seventy varieties of truffles are the white truffles (Tuber magnatum Pico) often called Alba or Piemonte truffle, and the black winter truffle (Tuber melanosporum) often referred to as Perigord Truffle. Summer truffles (Tuber aestivum) are also very popular and delicious; however they are not as aromatic as white and black winter truffles and should be much less expensive.
The season for fresh white truffles is generally mid-October through the end of December. Fresh black winter truffles are usually available from early December through March; summer truffles, May through November.
Appearance and Characteristics
Both white and black fresh truffles should be firm to the touch. The shape of a truffle is generally round; however, each truffle's shape is unique and its size can vary from the size of a marble to that of a tennis ball.
Black winter truffles are black or dark brown on the exterior and marbled with white veins on the interior. The exterior resembles the skin of a dog's nose and has small diamond-shaped projections. The intense fragrance and earthy taste is difficult to describe—it really must be experienced! The average size of a black winter truffle is one to two ounces, about the size of a golf ball. The Perigord region in France is the most well known source of black winter truffles. This variety is frequently referred to as Perigord truffles, even if they come from another area.
White truffles, usually found in Italy, are creamy white to tan colored, sometimes with a reddish tone, and have a heavenly aroma that exceeds even that of the black Perigord truffle. Much more rare than black truffles, and impossible to cultivate, white truffles are the most expensive of all the tuber-like fungi. Katherine Alford, author of Caviar, Truffles and Foie Gras, stated in her informative cookbook, "A top quality freshly dug white truffle will perfume an entire room, can be smelled on the street through a closed window, and is an extraordinary dining experience".
Storage and Handling
When exposed to air, the aroma of fresh truffles fills the room with heavenly fragrance. Because the fragrance will be lost with extended exposure to open air, truffles should be wrapped carefully in a paper towel and kept in an air-tight container or jar. It is very important to keep truffles dry; therefore it is a good idea to change the paper towel daily. All truffles hate dampness, and will develop mold if moisture is present. If mold develops, simply shave the affected area.
Black winter truffles will generally last up to ten days if stored properly in a cool, dry place. White truffles are better consumed within five to seven days of harvesting. Most people keep fresh truffles in the refrigerator.
When ready to prepare the truffles, first brush them with a small moist brush until all earth or gravel is removed. Use the point of a small knife to remove anything lodged in the crevices of the mushroom. Some preparations specify to peel off the outer layer of rind. These shavings may be used for another purpose such as soaking them in olive oil to be used as the base of a dressing or sauce.
In most cases the truffles should be sliced paper thin or minced. Any leftover pieces may be mixed with unsalted butter, wrapped tightly, and frozen. Frozen, the butter will last for months. If the shavings or leftover pieces are mixed with oil, use the truffle infused oil within a day or two.
Pairing Truffles With Other Foods
Black winter truffles are best when cooked, because the flavor of the truffles intensifies with heat. Small shavings or strips can be added to sauces and other savory dishes. Thin slices of raw black truffles can be placed under the skin of uncooked fowl, such as duck or pheasant, or can be wrapped around firm textured hearty fish such as monkfish. Black truffles pair well with many other meats, including beef, pork and game meats such as venison, boar and elk. Bacon and pancetta are often used in conjunction with black truffles, as are cheeses such as chËvre, kasseri, Selles-Sur-Cher, or aged Gouda. Black truffles or black truffle juice is wonderful in sauces made with hearty wine or brandy. And for the ultimate pairing, layer black truffle slices in a foie gras terrine.
White truffles are best served raw because some of the intense flavor and fragrance is lost during the cooking process. Shave raw white truffles on pasta, risotto, salads, eggs, sauces, or with poultry or other white meats such as rabbit or veal. White truffles also pair well with hard Italian cheeses, prosciutto and salami, and of course, foie gras.
Preserved Truffles and Truffle Products
Black truffles may be preserved by flash freezing, though this technique is not recommended for white truffles. Black winter truffles are also available in jars whole, sliced, or in pieces. This is a more affordable solution, though the preserved truffles do not compare with the fresh, just harvested product. The advantages of the jarred truffle are its availability off-season, and its long shelf life of three to four years. Once opened, the preserved truffles should be eaten within a week or frozen.
Using commercial truffle oils and prepared truffle butter is a good way to enjoy the flavor and aroma of both white and black truffles without the expense of purchasing fresh truffles. These products have a wide variety of applications. Truffle oil or truffle butter is delicious on mashed potatoes, vegetables, with meat or seafood, and even on popcorn.
Truffle juice is another product exhibiting the unique earthy truffle flavor that so many enjoy. Truffle juice is made from the water used to preserve black truffles and is wonderful in sauces.
Recently introduced to the market, truffle salt is a mixture of sea salt and ground air-dried Italian black truffles. Many producers have tried to imitate the original product, which is produced by a small company in Italy, Cassina Rossa. Cassina Rossa Truffle Salt has won numerous awards and is considered to be the highest quality truffle salt on the market. Used primarily as a finishing salt (add to dishes as a last touch), truffle salt is heavenly with almost anything.