What the Heck Is A Mushroom Truffle?
Random Ramblings From Idlewild
Jacques Gerard stealthily moves through the Provence forest as his leashed animal pulls him forward eagerly. Anticipating, Salivating.There is quick and furtive activity. Jacques springs to action and with his walking staff blocks the animal from devouring his prey.
What is is happening here? A diabolical criminal on the run through the forests of France? A wild boar perhaps, destined for the family dinner table? Non. Jacques is hunting the elusive black truffle - revered by gourmets the world over - and his assistant is his trained pig.So much trouble for what is essentially a mushroom covered with dirt.
Truffles produce a "male pig hormone" scent, so historically, female pigs were trained in the art of truffle tracking. Sort of like hiding Brad Pit in the woods and letting loose a pack of wild females. Pigs - being pigs - tend to pounce on the nugget and devour it with a satisfied snort. These days, dogs are preferred, since they can be trained to hunt truffles and not regard them as fast food. In fact, dogs are not particularly fond of the taste (of truffles, but Brad Pitt is OK), or so we think since no dog has gone on the record to state why they don't like them, preferring instead the lowly dog biscuits given to them as a reward. I mean, if a dog won't eat it?
Pass the Truffled Turkey, Please.
The fanatical devotion to truffles dates back centuries. Theophrastus mentions them in his writings as early as the 4th century B.C. Not to be outdone, Plutarch, Juvenal, Cicero and Dioscorides all waxed philosophic on the mysterious truffle. During the Renaissance, truffled turkey was considered the finest gustatory delicacy. "I have wept three times in my life." Rossini confessed, who was apparently a crybaby, "Once when my first opera failed. Once again the first time I heard Paganini play the violin. And once when a truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic." I'm surprised he didn't jump in after it.
There's a Place in France...
Ranging in size from gumball to misshapen potato, truffles are found under beech, oak, birch, hazelnut, hickories, Douglas fir and pine trees. Once, they were primarily the exclusive domain of Italy, France, and just a few other isolated areas, but now, thanks to cultivation of the spore, they are grown in Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. In 1992, American Frank Garland became the first person to successfully cultivate the black Perigord truffle though many had tried for 100 years (Sorry Italy and France. I guess we win...AGAIN). His truffle nursery has now shipped over 300,000 trees with the truffle spores already attached to the roots. There are now successful farms in N.C., Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Furthermore, Oregon black and white truffles are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest and grow abundantly in the forests of Oregon and Washington, good news for foodies. While European truffles can sell for $300 to $2000 per pound, equally good American truffles sell for a fraction of the cost, about $100 to $200 per pound. Still expensive, yes, but worth it if you're a "truffle head.".
I Think I'll Take the Dog For a Walk.
In December 2007, the highest price paid for a single specimen was set by a Macau businessman. Weighing a whopping 3.3 pounds, the truffle was sniffed out near Pisa by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco, man's best friend if ever there was one. The freakish fungi was auctioned simultaneously in Macao, Hong Kong and Florence and fetched a king's ransom of $333.000. As in 'Uncle Sam Apple Pie' dollars. Now that's some Pisa dough. Too bad Mr. Savini wasn't using a female pig. She might have eaten it, and that would have been hilarious.
What's That Smell?
Many mail-order companies sell both European and American truffles; fresh, frozen, freeze-dried, in a jar and a plethora of truffle products guaranteed to thrill the secret chef in all of us while simultaniously picking your pocket. Black truffles have a strong, earthy, mushroom taste with wood undertones, while white truffles are more subtle, slightly creamy and floral. Smell is a different matter. The aroma has been generously described as resembling deep-fried walnuts, but most describe them as "foul smelling," "like goat urine," and my favorite, "dead mouse trapped behind a wall." The dining elite pay no attention to such criticism, regarding these nescient philistines - these commoners - as spoilspores.
One Chewed Over The Cukoo's Nest
When some poor soul finally succumbs to the mystery and decadent enticement of the almighty truffle, the truffle is shaved raw over steaming buttered pasta, inserted into savory meats or placed under the skins of succulent, roasted fowl. They are orgasmically infused into foie gras, pate' and herb stuffings. Brillat-Savarine - the famous epicure and gastronome, called them the "diamond of the kitchen," and famously said, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." Well, friends, with a truffle in your hand and a gleam in your eye, you are a gourmet. Or maybe - just maybe - you're a little goofy in the head, and dogs, the noblest of beasts, know something you don't.
Truffle Hunting in Tuscany
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