It is at this time of year that gastronomy gets very excited with foragers arriving at kitchen back doors with baskets of mushrooms but especially truffles the black culinary jewels which chefs and customers salivate over. It is difficult to describe to the non initiated the lure of these unique fungi and what they do to recipes from everything as simple as an omelette or soup to indulgent ingredients like lobster or foie gras. The distinctly pungent and earthy flavour elevates any dish to a whole new level and price for that matter. You will also find cheese, oil, honey and butter all flavoured with truffle these days.
The truffle hunters using dogs or pigs trained to sniff out these edible diamonds guard their locations like undercover spies so that their rivals will not discover their rich wild pastures usually in or near trees and forests. They grow a few inches underground so great skill is needed to harvest them. With eye watering prices to be charged of sometimes a thousand euro per kilo, this lucrative business is not to be sniffed at. The hunters will also sell them onto agents who will peddle them around the top restaurants and hotel of the world. They can grow to half a kilo in size and take about ten years to do so.
They have been eaten for centuries too; the Romans treated this form of mushroom as an aphrodisiac and medicine. The French were the first to really use them in cooking and they even have festivals there for them now. The rest of the world has cottoned on and everyone is digging for them these days.
There are dozens of varieties and there is a white one too that is even more tasty and prized but it loses some flavour when cooked so it’s best eaten raw by being grated onto salads or hot dishes so that its taste is not diminished. The northern Italians are particularly fond of this type. Truffles are a light speckled beige colour on the inside and quite hard to the touch.
My first truffle encounter was in France when I was presented with what looked like a dark black unevenly round piece of bark about the size of a golf ball with a skin texture like cauliflower. When I sniffed it the amazing aroma flew up my nose like a whirlwind. It was then generously grated into a simmering creamy sauce to be poured over roasted chicken fillets and the truffle flavour permeated every mouthful. I was tasting a classical French combination of chicken and truffle for the first time and to this day I can recall the exact sensation on my palate forty years on.
Since then I have cooked and eaten truffle hundreds of times, we also have them in Ireland though I have never had one that was dug up from our old sod. Needless to say being so rare and revered your dish containing truffle will not be cheap.
If ever there was a meaning for price on arrival to determine the cost of a dish it is with truffles never mind with fish. On the positive side only the smallest grating or slightest slivers of truffle are needed to do the job. Still if you are paying a hundred euro for a marble sized truffle from a hunter then it has to go a long way across a dozen dishes perhaps to make sure the correct profit margin is still gained on the food.
Of course you can buy just the one specimen and then get your pet dog or pig to give it a good sniff every day for a few weeks and when the autumn comes you traipse around your local wooded countryside with the sniffer dog or pig on a lead and you might just hit the jackpot and discover your own little truffle mine that you can return to every year for your gourmet bounty from mother earth.
Not every restaurant is going to be able to buy it off you however; only those at the high end who will also know how to cook with it properly and have the customers who will pay for it will be interested. Otherwise you can treat yourself at home to one of our great ingredients.