Truffles: The Rich History and Culinary Delight of Fungus
Often confused with their fungal cousins, truffles are not mushrooms, but these highly sought after delicacies can add amazing flavour and aroma to a range of dishes.
Mushrooms and other funguses have probably played a role in our lives throughout human history. They offer a meatiness not found with vegetables and fruits, as well as some of the most exquisite flavours to be found on the planet. While there are too many fungal varieties to list used in cuisines around the world, few compare to truffles. Coveted by all and obtained by few, these “fruits of the earth” are rare and delectable.
What Are Truffles?
Hailed by world-renowned chefs as “the diamond of the kitchen”, truffles are like mushrooms. However, don’t immediately equate these with cremini, portabella or shitake mushrooms. They’re worlds apart.
Truffles are actually not mushrooms, although they are close cousins. Both are funguses. Both are the fruiting bodies of a subterranean growth, and both are highly dependent on moisture in order to flourish. Truffles grow primarily between the roots of trees, with the most common being oak, chestnut, beech and hazel trees. Unlike many species of mushrooms, truffle spores are not dispersed into the air. Instead, the fungus relies on fungivores (animals that eat funguses) to spread the spores to new areas.
In terms of cuisine, you’ll find truffles feature highly in many traditional French recipes. However, they are also heavily used in the cuisines of other nations, including Greek and Italian, Egyptian, and many others.
A Brief History of Truffles
Truffles have been known since ancient times, and were consumed heavily by the Egyptians, who preferred their truffles coated in goose fat. They have also been used as medicine, and venerated as gifts from the gods. Some ancient medical authorities even recommended using the juice of truffles to treat eye diseases.
During the middle ages, truffles saw a significant decline in use, outside of specific, small areas of Europe, but with the dawning of the Renaissance, their delicious flavour was rediscovered and their use in cuisine redoubled. In fact, it was Louis XIV who was largely responsible for the renewed popularity. He was a gastronomist and was fascinated by these funguses to the point of attempting to cultivate them.
While that attempt failed, truffles remained very popular for centuries to come. They peaked in terms of availability in the 1800s, but the advent of World War I decimated the lands where truffles grew abundantly, devastating harvests for decades to come. Today, truffles are rare but highly sought after for their incredible flavour and aroma.
Truffles vs. Mushrooms
As we’ve mentioned, truffles and mushrooms, while related, are not the same things. While most mushrooms sold today are commercially grown, truffles are not. They are only harvested, and because they grow underground, it can be virtually impossible to determine whether they are present in a particular area until they fruit (when the aboveground portion grows).
Unlike mushrooms, which can grow both from the ground and from trunks and tree stumps, truffles only grow underground. Mushrooms can be grown almost anywhere with the right moisture/humidity level, but truffles are found only in a few specific geographic regions, including France and Croatia, as well as parts of Italy. They have also been found growing in the Pacific Northwest region of the US.
With that being said, modern growing techniques have made it possible to grow truffles commercially, although production is nowhere near the levels of mushrooms. Commercial truffle growing requires significantly more time and cost than mushroom growing, though. Truffles need the right type of soil, the right humidity levels, and, perhaps most importantly, they need a grove of trees (of the right species) in order to thrive.
White Truffles or Black Truffles?
Truffles come in several different colours depending on the growing region where they are harvested, and the time of year. However, the two most common are white and black, although burgundy truffles are also very popular.
White truffles grow in both winter and summer, and they taste different depending on the season. Winter white truffles have an amazing aroma, but that can fade quickly, so freshness is of paramount importance. White varieties are much more aromatic than black ones, but cooking will also dissipate that aroma. They are primarily served fresh/raw because of this. Note that summer white truffles are slightly less aromatic than winter varieties, and the flavour is a bit different, with more sweetness, and often a hint of garlic.
Black truffles are the more sought after of the two most popular varieties. This is because, while they are less aromatic, they have a stronger flavour. They are also better when cooked, as this can enhance the flavour even further. Note that the winter variety of black truffles is actually a grey-brown to black, with white interior veins. The flavour has been described as earthy chocolate. Summer black truffles are dark brown, with yellow/grey interior flesh. They have a similar flavour to winter varieties.
Burgundy truffles, perhaps the rarest of all types, grow throughout Europe and only grow during the summer. The exterior is a dark, dark brown or black, and the interior is a similar colour, with white veins. In appearance, it is very similar to the black truffle, but the aroma and flavour are subtly different. While they can be served cooked, they are best served raw in order to preserve the delicate aroma, which can fade during the cooking process.
Dried or Fresh?
Like mushrooms, truffles can be purchased either dried or fresh. The best choice will largely depend on your intended use. Dried truffles have less aroma and flavour than fresh ones, but make excellent additions to soups, stews and other liquid-based dishes. Fresh truffles are better sliced and served, either cooked or raw depending on the variety and the dish in question.
Fresh truffles are seasonal items, and are available in the summer and winter (both black and white truffles grow in each season, but not in the spring or winter). Because of demand, it can often be difficult to find fresh truffles outside these seasons. One option if you prefer to avoid dried varieties is to use canned or jarred truffles.
These are usually lightly boiled in brine, and then sealed with the brine/juice into a hermetically sealed can or sterilized jar. While they lack the flavour, aroma and texture of fresh truffles, some diners do prefer them to dried options. Another choice is truffle oil, although this is primarily for dishes where only the flavour of truffles is needed, and not the flesh itself.
Exploring the World of Truffles
Both white and black varieties can offer an incredibly exquisite culinary experience, and can be used in a myriad of different dishes, from use in soups and chowders to pairing with red meats and everything in between. If you’re ready to explore the world of truffles, our gourmet products await. We offer only the highest quality black and white truffles, ensuring that we source our offerings from growers vested in protecting the environment and practicing sustainable harvesting methods. Have a question or comment about truffles? We invite you to contact us today.