A Trifling Truffle
Thursday, February 5, 1998
For centuries, it's been a task relegated to the olfactory prowess of pigs, dogs and elderly virgins. There's at least one account on record of a village in France whose annual supply of truffles solely relied on the nose of one of its oldest female citizens who remained chaste as the driven snow, leaving her talent for locating truffles uncompromised.
As M.F.K. Fisher recounted in The Art of Eating, the priceless nose would glow red the closer it came to unearthing its booty. For the most part, however, scouting out this acclaimed fungus has pretty much been left up to four-legged creatures.
Until recently. Truffle enthusiast Greg Lizza, chef at Fresh Cream, sent over an article from The New York Times reporting the sweeping changes taking place with the harvesting and production of truffles. Traditionally found in France-and surprisingly, even in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana-today, central Italy boasts the biggest booty of both black and white truffles on the market.
Although truffle harvesting is still an atavistic pursuit veiled in secrecy and conducted by excavators who are extremely protective of their turf, agronomy is now making a foray onto the scene. Thirty percent of the world's annual yield of truffles is now being harvested from oak, willow and nut trees that have been inoculated with spores. Urbani U.S.A., a company based in Italy and a major world supplier, planted 65,000 black truffle trees in the heart of Texas longhorn country.
So does this mean we'll be sprinkling truffles on our popcorn in the near future? Probably not. It's still a young form of agriculture with tricky environmental requirements. And a prolonged drought in Italy has forced the price of truffles to up to $1,250 a pound.
That's a lot of clams to shell out for these rather homely, hirsute fungus balls. "Right now, I'm using black truffle trimmings and white truffle oil," says Lizza. "I use the truffle trimmings in whipped potatoes that are piped into a soup plate, and filled with forest mushroom soup. I'm doing the soup with cpes and chanterelles from Big Sur and it's a really intense, earthy flavor, especially finished with a drizzle of white truffle oil."
At Stokes Adobe, chef Brandon Miller has an AT&T-inspired lobster and frisee salad on the menu, garnished with beet chips and French Perigord truffles, dressed in a vinaigrette that is made from the same type of truffle, sometimes referred to as black diamonds. "The thing about truffles is that if you use too few, you're constantly looking for them to find the flavor," Miller attests. "Using the white truffle oil really helps in adding perfume to the dish."
When chef Robert Kinkaid uses truffles at Kinkaid's Bistro, "It's usually in something traditional like sauce Perigueux, to accompany foie gras. But I don't often have them on the menu. Their extremely earthy quality is so unique, and not a lot of people are familiar with their charms." And at more than $1,000 a pound, it could be an expensive taste to acquire.
Apparently, customers of the Bagel Bakery were searching for something other than the multi-grain, three-seed goodness of a big hunk of bread. Voil , chocolate fudge bagels made with Guittard cocoa and chocolate chips. Just throw in a double mocha latte for calcium, and you've got a full day's nutrition. cw