What are truffles?
Truffles are the highly aromatic fruiting body, of a certain species of (ectomycorrhizal) fungus. They’re challenging to farm, considered expensive and spend their entire life-cycle underground. There’s so much more to learn, however, so here’s our guide to the not-so-humble truffle:
How many types of truffle are there?
There are over two hundred species of truffle. Despite this only a handful are highly prized in culinary circles. Common names for the best known, are the French black (or Perigord) truffle and the Italian white (Piedmont) truffle. Summer, Garlic and Pecan truffles, are among other types, that can be found in suitable environments throughout the world.
What do truffles look like?
Truffles are generally a spherical or egg shaped, providing they are grown in loose, well-structured soil. If they form in stony, rocky soils however, they can be quite irregular and knobby. French black truffles are matt black in colour when fully mature. The outer skin (peridium) is covered in raised pyramidal warts and is quite firm. The inside flesh (gleba) is blackish brown, with thin creamy white veins. There are many differing characteristics among the vast range of species.
How are truffles grown?
Most plant species have, over time, established symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationships with mycorrhizal fungi. The name “mycorrhiza” means “fungus root”. The fungi live in and around the roots of over 90% of the earth’s plant species, effectively operating as a secondary root system. The fungal hyphae extend a long way out into the soil, extracting mineral elements and water for their host plant, which in turn, provides the fungus with the sugars produced in the process of photosynthesis.
The truffle is the fruiting body formed when the fungal species is ready to reproduce. The ripe truffle carries millions of fertile spore, that may germinate when it breaks down in the soil. Truffles begin to mature in late autumn or early winter, when aromas form, in readiness for discovery. They reach full maturity during the winter months. Truffles are found just below, or sometimes breaking the surface, to approximately twenty-five centimeters deep depending on soil structure.
Can I grow truffles?
Anyone can learn to grow truffles, but not everyone can provide them with the environment they need to thrive in. Undertaking a comprehensive truffle growing course, to learn about the specialised conditions required, and the industry itself is the first step towards becoming a truffle farmer.
How are truffles harvested? Truffle pigs or dogs?
Whilst there is no written account, we can theorize, that centuries ago, wild boar were most likely observed in natural oak forests, excavating truffle with their snouts. For many years thereafter, pigs were used as markers of where to find truffle. In the mid 1700’s hunters began to train dogs to find truffle and for obvious reasons they were a more effective, portable and manageable resource for this work.
Various breeds of dog are trained for truffle hunting and harvest today, including spaniels, Labradors, Britons, kelpies, border collies and the most famous truffle dog, the Italian Lagotto. A dog must have the right combination of characteristics to become a good hunter, including intelligence, work ethic and the ability to stay focused.
What’s the biggest truffle ever found?
Truffles vary greatly in size and weight, commonly ranging between 20 and 150 grams. They do grow much larger, occasionally up to a kilogram or more. The largest recorded black truffle to date was 1511 grams, found in Victoria, Australia during the 2016 harvest.
Why are truffles so expensive?
First thing to say is, that a little truffle goes a long way! It only takes a few grams of ripe truffle to influence and create a magnificent dish. Putting it into perspective, an exquisite seasonal delight may only cost $10 – 15.00 per plate, when cooking at home. It just sounds expensive when people talk in pounds or kilos.
Its true that truffles are ‘relatively’ expensive compared to some other ingredients, for a range of reasons including:
- They’re very challenging to grow
- Need specific soil, climate and environmental factors
- Require the right host tree
- Labour intensive to find (growing underground)
- Have a relatively short shelf life
- Transported in cold chain packaging
What do truffles smell and taste like?
The aroma is so unique that it’s difficult to describe. Breathtaking, sensual, seductive and intoxicating are terms often used. It’s not surprising that most people describe the aroma and flavour of truffles differently. This is due to the unique nature of truffle characteristics and the nuances that occur due to different growing environments. Flavour is generally described as earthy and fungus like, while the aroma is often described as sweet, musky, intoxicating and smoldering.
How do you eat truffles?
Truffles are essentially a natural aroma and flavour enhancer. When added to certain dishes, generally savory, or however, sometimes sweet, truffles greatly improve the depth of flavour.
A common approach to using truffles is to shave or grate them onto the dish just prior to serving. This is fine, however certain truffles that are more robust, such as the French black, may also be warmed through sauces, and dishes like pasta, mashed potato and risottos, greatly increasing the release and depth of aroma.
Where can you buy truffles?
Depending on your proximity to a truffle farm, you may be able to purchase direct from the grower. Other options include buying online, either from a grower or gourmet food distributor, or seeking out growers at farmer’s markets and seasonal festivals. High end food retailers may also stock fresh truffle, during the winter harvest season.
When buying from a local source it’s a good idea to hold the truffle first to ensure it is firm to touch. It should have only the slightest give when lightly squeezed and the aroma should be pleasant. If it feels spongy it is over ripe and or the aroma is unpleasant it should be avoided at all costs.
Are Truffles Good for You?
French Black truffles contain around 72% water, 7.6% fibre, very little vegetable fat and are rich in quality proteins. They also contain many minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and various other organic substances. So yes… truffles are good for you!