Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for mushrooms. So when I saw an uncrowded, purple table at the markets with only a glass cabinet that showcased a dozen black truffles, I got excited. Hideously expensive yet hugely attractive, the truffle is the holy grail of mushrooms…
I couldn’t resist.
I’d never seen one before and have only tried it once two seasons ago in the best cauliflower dish I’ve ever eaten. I finally understood what all the fuss was about and to this day rave about that meal. I am at a loss to accurately describe their complex, prized flavour. Saying they are the epitome of earthiness doesn’t say much, so I’ll have to quote Stephanie Alexander’s “musky and haunting” as I think she is closer to the mark (yet still miles away).
Haunting is correct in two ways. I nearly keeled over when I bought a mere 11 grams and had to dish out the credit card. Then I got nervous. I had this tiny package, so highly valued and revered throughout time, what would I do with it? I couldn’t experiment with it, could I? What if I stuffed it up? Did I use it to infuse salt or oil so I could enjoy the flavour longer? Divide it up so I could experience its flavour in a few ways – or would that just lessen its impact and be a waste? Over the weekend the thought of this tiny, black lump sitting in my fridge weighed on me.
Thankfully I was awed by the result, but now wonder if I perhaps should have splurged on a few extra grams to make the flavour a little more intense. Herein lies the danger of truffles.
You wouldn’t buy truffles for their beauty; their Latin name aptly means swelling or lump. There are white, black (Perigord) and burgundy (summer) truffles hailing from regions in France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. There are also a number of truffle-like species to be found in the US, the Middle East, Africa and Germany, and since the mid 1800s truffles have successfully been cultivated, with Australia and New Zealand being a big grower of black truffles in the last few decades.
Why are they so expensive and prized? For one, their season only lasts between eight and ten weeks a year. And truffles don’t emerge from the ground like normal mushrooms, but hide away between leaf litter and soil, their mycelia forming a fruit at the roots of certain types of trees – hazelnut, oak and pine to name a few. As they can’t be seen by the naked eye, an animal – traditionally a pig but now a trained dog – is used to find these morsels. Finding them is like finding gold, or black diamonds, as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin described them.
The truffle has a very long history of being desirable. Inscriptions of the neo-Sumerians were found dating back to the 20th century BC supposedly referencing them. They were reportedly eaten covered in goose fat by the ancient Egyptians, were found in the dishes of ancient Rome and are mentioned in the writings of Theophrastus, the ‘father of botany’ and a student of Aristotle, in the 4th century BC.
There is again reference to truffles being hunted in the 15th century, but they seem to have lost favour until the Renaissance, where they were a celebrated food of the French court. In the late 1700s they were readily available in Parisian markets, becoming the darling of Haute cuisine, but were only really afforded by nobility. Truffles steadily gained in stature and price, especially after the World Wars destroyed much of the land where they grew, and in the recent fifty or so years they have largely been cultivated. Currently, a find of a truffle in the wild brings big, big bucks.
Cooking with or eating truffle is a huge extravagance, one I found both scary and hugely satisfying – but one I won’t be repeating anytime soon… unfortunately. Using truffle oil or salt may be a better way of bringing this divine flavour into our worlds, and a little kinder to the bank balance. But a word of warning: most commercial truffle oils are not made with truffles but use a flavouring, most often 2,4-dithiapentane, which is a compound basically derived from formaldehyde. Eek!
black truffle risotto
My nervousness about cooking with this expensive mushroom stopped me from throwing caution to the wind, sort of. I wasted some in a vegan cauliflower dish I devised causing instant regret (I couldn’t really taste it). So I went with the recommended classic of risotto using dairy, as it compliments and brings out the truffle’s flavour. I only had about eight grams of truffle left, but use as much as you can afford as more will make this simple dish even more spectacular. You could easily make this vegan by using olive oil and not adding cheese.
10-15gm fresh black truffle*
750ml vegetable stock
125g Arborio rice
½ medium onion, chopped very finely
1 celery stick, chopped finely
125ml good quality dry white wine
35gm butter or olive oil
40 gm Parmesan or grana adano (I used Il forteto toscano) finely grated
salt and pepper to taste
- bring the stock to a boil then lower heat and keep at a slow simmer
- melt the butter or heat the oil in a frypan and cook the onion for around 5 minutes
- add the celery and cook until the onion is translucent
- add the rice and stir well to coat the grains in the butter or oil
- add the wine and gently stir until it dissipates
- add half a cup of stock and stir until absorbed. Keep adding quantities of stock in small batches, stirring continuously until it is absorbed. Do this until the rice is cooked al dente (or to your liking) and all liquid is absorbed (you may not use all the stock)
- while adding the stock, grate the cheese and two-thirds of the truffle and set aside (or all if you don’t want to shave some on the finished dish)
- turn off the heat and stir in the grated truffle and cheese
- cover and leave for two minutes before serving. Plate up and then slice or grate the remainder of the truffle over individual portions (if desired, or just add all the truffle to the risotto in the previous step)
- I served mine on a bed of wilted spinach and it was the perfect accompaniment.
*Other wild mushrooms could be supplemented – morsels, chanterelles, porcini or another type of mushroom – but increase portions depending on how flavoursome the mushroom is.