The beginner's guide to making the most out of truffles
by Lydia Slater - The Times
The white truffle Tuber magnatum is a mysterious, elusive creature, rarely found, poorly understood and never to be tamed by modern methods of cultivation. Few have tasted it and most know just one thing about it: that it's very, very expensive. In 2007, a single truffle weighing 1.5kg was sold for a wallet pulverising £165,000.
This year the wet summer and warm autumn may have wrought havoc on olive and grape harvests, but have produced a bumper crop of these unprepossessing but highly scented tubers.
"They're good value for money now." says Gianpaolo La Greca, proprietor of the Edinburgh-based truffle importers Sapori. "Two years ago when it was exceptionally hot and dry, the prices were mental ‐ around twice as much." (Indeed, this season, white truffles are selling for under £1,500 a kilo, compared with £2,800 last year and almost £4,000 in 2012.) "They're fragrant and powerful this year," says La Greca. When my first consignment was flown over, the courier could smell them through the polystyrene box, which is a good sign.
But can white truffles be an option for those of us with normal pay packets? Yes, says La Greca (who is selling them for £125 for 30g on his website). "You don't need more than 10g a head," he says reassuringly. "We like to suggest people club together and get them for a dinner party. And one truffle will give you several meals if you look after it properly. When it arrives, wrap it in tissue straight away and put it into a sealed jar with the best-quality eggs. Overnight, it will infuse the eggs with the flavour ‐ you will have truffled eggs without having to use up any of the truffle." La Greca's favourite way with white truffles is to grate them atop home-made tagliollini, accompanied by a little unsalted butter. "The truffle tastes rich, aromatic, earthy, with a lingering parmesan sweetness. Once you've smelt it, you'll remember the pheromones. It would be one of my death row meals."
For many gourmets, the price is well worth paying for this acknowledged king of the tubers. It's not just the musky, pheromonal odour that makes the fungi so special, it's also the fact that, so far, nobody has yet found a way to grow them to order.
"The white truffle has eluded cultivation so far, which is why it's the holy grail," says scientist and truffle expert Dr Paul Thomas. "It's got a fascinating biology and several different life cycles," Truffles exist in a mutually beneficial "mycorrhizal" relationship with certain types of tree root, usually varieties of oak. But inoculating the roots of an oak with white truffle spores appears to produce truffles only sporadically.
Fortunately, other truffles are available, easier to cultivate and cheaper ‐ even the Perigord black winter truffle, which is now being grown as far afield as Australia, though it still can command up to £1,000 a kilo (hence its nickname of the "black diamond").
The white spring truffle, T. borchii is sometimes passed off to unsuspecting gourmets as the Alba truffle, but its aroma is more garlicky. The summer truffle, T.aestivum has a less pungent aroma and flavour than its Perigord cousin and consequently a less daunting price tag ‐ you can find a small jar of summer truffles in Ocado and Waitrose for £7.99. Confusingly, the autumn truffle, T. uncinatum, which has a stronger aroma, is considered botanically identical to the summer truffle, with differences down to environmental conditions only. T. aestivum and uncinatum are native to this country and, what's more, they don't require specialised hunting skills to unearth. Indeed, they can sometimes be spotted protruding above ground, their warty, lumpy shapes mistaken for dried-up dog's mess.
But, of course, the cheapest way to consume truffles this autumn is at home. M&S for instance, not only stocks truffle oil, truffle pasta, truffle salt and truffle honey, it is bringing out a truffled ready meal in the new year.
"People associate the taste of truffle with luxury" says Tam Storrar, head chef at Blanchette, a French restaurant in Soho. "But there are lots of affordable ways to eat it. Truffled honey has a really good, strong taste and just by drizzling it over goat's cheese you can create an interestingly complex dish. Another good product is truffled mushroom paste: you can just spread some of the paste on top of a piece of halibut or cod before roasting and it adds a rich, earthy dimension. And I really like truffle butter I make my own, but you can buy it, and it tastes delicious melted on top of a steak."
Many top chefs are sniffy about truffle oil, which is usually given its strong scent with an artificial aroma rather than with shavings of the precious fungus itself ‐ Gordon Ramsay once declared truffle oil to be "one of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to a chef". "I do use truffle oils, but you mustn't buy too cheap" says Storrar. "If you're paying £10 for 250ml, the oil isn't very good, you can't taste the truffle and you can't taste the finish." He recommends Urbani truffle oil (£7.50 for 55ml at Sapori). "It's been around ever since I worked in kitchens and it has a really strong flavour. I'd rather spend a bit more and have it really work."
Meanwhile, for the dedicated trufficulteur, there is always the option of buying a pre-inoculated tree and trying to cultivate your own little luxuries in the garden. Dr Thomas's company Mycorrhizal Systems (plantationsystems.com) will send you an oak or hazel seedling inoculated with spring, summer or winter truffle for £34.99. This is clearly a comparative bargain ‐ as long as you don't mind waiting a decade for dinner.