So what’s going on? How did the world suddenly fall so in love with truffles?
True, these fungi, or tuber, are an experience like no other.
Their aroma is so deeply complex, and so indescribably sensuous, that comparisons are often made between the earthy scent of truffles and sex. It’s a musky, mysterious sort of aroma that lulls the senses, even as it inflames them. And once you have tasted truffles, you tend to crave it again and again.
The minute they come in season, connoisseurs flock to fine-dining restaurants where fresh truffles, snuffled from the ground by special hogs and hounds, are being served with everything from risotto to scrambled eggs. Fresh truffles are probably the most sought-after, luxury food item in the world today.
And the romance just continues…
Though the truffle phenomenon is perhaps just a couple of decades old, they have been around for centuries. But only the French had any great love for them. (Go through any collection of Escoffier’s recipes and you’ll be surprised by the frequency with which truffles turn up.) There have always been truffles in other parts of Europe – Spain and Italy for instance – but they didn’t become such an integral part of the local cuisine, as the French made it. Even Italians used the famous white truffles of Alba only as a garnish.
So what changed?
Well, four things, actually.
First is financial prosperity, that’s making more and more people look for luxury ingredients that are expensive and aspirational. Caviar is hard to come by because of natural scarcity and foie gras production has now increased to the extent that duck liver is quite plentiful. Truffles, on the other hand, have retained their mystique and continue to epitomize seasonal luxury dining.
The second reason is demography. Outside of Western Europe, truffles were considered too aromatic, and therefore, a taste you probably “acquired” if you were a connoisseur of fine foods and traveled frequently across the Atlantic. But a new generation of Americans has grown up without the food prejudices of the past. These are people who love raw fish, follow the Zagat to high-end, adventurous food destinations, and regard truffles as an extremely desirable treat.
The third reason is availability. Truffle lore has it that you only get black truffles in France and white truffles in Italy. What’s more, they can’t be cultivated, and pop up like magic in mysterious places. None of that is really true. The black truffle can be cultivated and there are truffle plantations all over France, other parts of Europe, Australia, China and United States as well. White truffles, it is true, are harder to cultivate but new sources of supply have emerged over the years, making it more accessible than it used to be.
The fourth reason for its high popularity is the easy derivability of truffle’s unique scent. Truffles get their aroma from a chemical compound which can be artificially synthesized from – wait for this! — petroleum! Synthetic truffle essence is therefore not so expensive, compared to the real thing, and it is often the case that when people say they love truffles, all they have really experienced is the synthetic stuff.
If you don’t know your truffles well, then the synthetic smell is a reasonable approximation of the real thing. But the more familiar you get with fresh truffles, the less convinced you will be by the industrially-copied aroma.
Truffles — White And Black
White truffles are considered the most desirable kind, and Italians have done a splendid job of propagating their singularity all over the world, thanks to the white truffles that grow wild in the forests of Alba in north Italy.
As soon as they come into season during the months of Fall, the best white truffles are snapped up by the great restaurants of Europe. The second division goes to shops. The worst ones, usually on their last legs and over-ripening fast, go to the foreign market. Which is why the white truffles you may have already smelled in USA lack the powerful aroma of the best and the freshest.
A single fresh, white truffle will have enough aroma to perfume an entire dining room. But a major drawback with white truffles is this: their delicate flavor is easily destroyed by heat, which is why there are so few classical Italian recipes that involve white truffles. Instead, they are shaved raw over a variety of food – such as eggs, pasta, mashed potatoes, risotto and a few kinds of meat.
White truffles act as a condiment. Unlike black truffles, which have a longer life span and can be cooked without damaging their flavor.
Tradition has it that black truffles grow wild around the roots of trees in a region called Perigord in France. But truth is, you find them all over France (Provence, Burgundy etc.) and they are cultivated or farmed and not necessarily wild. Cultivating truffles is a long-term process that involves injecting the spores into a tree and then waiting several years for the first truffles to grow. And though the French don’t like admitting this, you get perfectly good black truffles in Spain and Italy.
And right here in Washington state too!
John Howie Steak, in fact, sources locally-grown black truffles from experienced foragers in the state, and Executive Chef Mark Hipkiss is waiting to see how this year’s black truffles turn out after the worst of winter has passed. “Over the last couple of years, our WA truffles have been really good,” says Chef Hipkiss. “The price point is also more conducive, which gives us the ability to shave them over fresh scallops with creamy leeks, make black truffle aioli, truffle butter, and so on.”
They’re currently on the menu at John Howie Steak, and typically, Chef Hipkiss goes through a couple of pounds of black truffles every week when they’re in season.
And if there isn’t a very heavy freeze (which can potentially destroy them), you can look forward to sampling more of the many wonderful ways Chef Hipkiss uses truffles during the months of February and March as well.
Enjoy a memorable dining experience with truffles – the “diamond” ingredient that is presented to perfection at John Howie Steak. Call us at 425-440-0880 to make your reservation now!