Truffles. A Brief Study in Black and White.
When asked about truffles, many Americans immediately start talking about candy. This is not surprising. Our gastronomic database is often flawed and imprecise … especially when dealing with imported substances and ideas. As a society, our culinary acumen has vastly improved since the days when Julia Child first took to the airwaves in an attempt to rescue everyone from the frozen and canned indifference of our mealtime malaise. But, in spite of our remarkable evolution, we still fall prey to idiotic menu items and marketing trends and eventually lose track of the real meaning of cooking terminology we employ every day.
But that’s another story.
Real truffles deserve our respect and undivided attention. Born near the roots of beech, poplar, oak, birch, hazel, and pine trees, the truffle is an earthy, aromatic and wholly seductive fungus with several culinary applications. Shaved over pasta or risotto, truffles are an unsurpassed enhancement. They can also be added to sauces, or sliced and inserted into meat and poultry prior to roasting. And, being earthborn tubers, the truffle and the potato are the best of friends.
Traditionally harvested in Europe and China, America has recently garnered begrudging respect for its own hypogeous fungi. Country of origin notwithstanding, successful truffle hunting generally requires the olfactory assistance of a pig or a dog. The pigs are eager self-starters, but often gobble up the prize before it can be retrieved. Dogs are more trustworthy, once they’ve been properly trained. And, as any truffle-sniffing dog will tell you, once they’ve done truffles, there’s just no returning to drugs or bombs.
The black truffle is indigenous to France, and grows on the roots of oak trees. The flavor is stronger than that of white truffles, and some would say less seductive. The white truffle, associated primarily with Italy, possesses a subtle, unforgettable aroma and flavor. Once tasted, they require no further explanation. China produces black and white truffles year-round, and because of the abundance their pedigree may be called into question by European gastronomes. Like anything else consumed by humans, the quality is subjective and impossible to quantify.
Truffles are expensive, but unlike salty fish eggs and twice-fermented wine, they are well worth the outrageous market price. For those who wish to experience the flavor and aroma of these buried treasures without spending a fortune, truffle oil is a good place to begin. Truffle oil is simply olive oil infused with white or black truffles. Excellent on salad or potatoes, it also adds a level of elegance to a simple roasted chicken. These small bottles of oil are not cheap, but certainly more affordable than the tuber itself.
Sometime around Christmas of 1895, the chocolate truffle was born. A whimsical confectionary pun, this was nothing more than cooled chocolate ganache formed into a misshapen ball, and dusted with cocoa powder. The resultant chocolate lump in cocoa visually replicated the image of a truffle in dirt, and in 1895 France, this was quite the knee-slapper. It was also delicious and an unqualified success. The ensuing centuries have drained all precision and logic from the matter, and these days any errant morsel of chocolate can be called a truffle, no matter what it looks like. Perfectly round, egg-shaped or festooned with sugary ornamentation, the modern chocolate truffle bears little resemblance to the fungus that inspired its creation. More often than not, this generates confusion among those who don’t know the history, and some folks erroneously believe that real truffles somehow play a role in the production of chocolate candy. Some of these people are even prepared to argue this point – a delusion which can only be dispelled with the following explanation:
Chocolate truffles aren’t really truffles, just like chocolate bunnies aren’t really bunnies.
That usually does the trick.