It’s May, and that means it’s officially spring. April showers have brought May flowers… as well as damp grounds, perfect for breeding truffles. Often thought of as one of the more accessible luxury culinary items in this modern day, truffles have actually been a part of epicurean culture for thousands of years.
The Truffles of Old
Since ancient Greece, Sumeria, Babylon, and Rome, truffles have been a precious commodity. Well respected and sought after, this coveted tuber made its official historical debut in the beginning of the common era by Pliny the Elder, when the noted historian and scientist penned his most important work, ‘Naturalis Historia’ (The History of Nature). In his book, he claimed that the truffle (then known as a tuber), was a miracle in and of itself, as ‘it is born and grows without roots.’
Around that same time, Plutarch of Cheronea, the ancient Greek philosopher said that truffles were ‘born’ through the combination of water, heat, and lightning, referencing an instance in mythology where Zeus threw a lightning bolt at an oak tree where truffles were then found.
This mythological connection with Zeus triggered the physician Galen to assert that truffles possess aphrodisiac qualities, as Zeus was known not only as the father of the Gods, but as a conqueror of women as well.
So are they mushrooms, or just Fun Guys (fungi)?
Often, I hear truffles referred to as mushrooms, but the truth is they are not! So, what’s the difference?
While it’s true that both mushrooms and truffles belong to the Fungi Kingdom, it’s best to think of them as cousins. Mushrooms grow above ground – almost anywhere – and have a very high moisture content. Truffles, on the other hand, are the subterranean fruiting body of fungi, and only grow below ground, always near tree roots, and have a very low moisture content. While there are tens of thousands of mushroom species (though far less are edible), there are far fewer truffle species of which most chefs and culinarians are familiar – black winter, black summer, white, burgundy, and perigord truffles.
One of the biggest differences between mushrooms and truffles is how they are to be handled: while mushrooms of all sorts can be sauteed, baked, roasted, fried – really any cooking method available will work on these delicious earthy treats, truffles are meant to be revered and respected, allowing their natural musky, savory, unctuous, exotic qualities to elevate any and every dish in which they are incorporated, without heat.
The Truffle Shuffle – A Man and his… Pig? Wait, that doesn’t sound right….
When I was younger, I didn’t love the smell of truffles, but I did enjoy the flavor! However, per usual, the reason I was willing to try them at all, in spite of the aroma was because I got to go on truffle hunts with my Papou (grandfather in Greek), his best friend Christos, and their dogs, Jack and Argos (named for Ulises’ dog Argos), and this tiny little stray runt dog named Koukla (which means ‘doll’ in Greek), who would always follow along…like me!
For a long time throughout history, truffle hunting was done with a man and a special truffle sniffing pig…but over the years, truffle hunters realized that these pigs were doing more than just sniffing – they were eating these precious tubers!
It turns out that the iconic truffle aroma acts as pheromones for pigs, because the compounds released are similar to porcine testosterone, which drive them wild! So, instead of simply finding the truffles, thanks to this pheromone driven excitement, the pigs dig wildly until they destroy the area and eat the truffles – not very productive for the human truffle hunter!
Nevertheless, truffle hunting with pigs was the common practice until the 1970’s, but my Papou preferred bringing Jack with him. This was in part because it meant Koukla would follow along (she loved Jack!), but mainly because the pigs would often eat the truffles, whereas Jack (and/or Argos) would sniff them out, and then Koukla would do the ‘hard work’ – even at her more advanced age (she was 9) – and get into all the nooks and crannies with her tiny paws to dig up these nuggets of culinary gold.
Bringing Home the Proverbial Bacon…
After a triumphant hunt, Papou, Jack, Koukla, and I would come home and proudly show my mother our treasures. Her favorite way to honor this special ingredient was in a simple recipe that still makes my mouth water to this day. She would take the freshest eggs from our hens, and separate the whites from the yolks; after seasoning the egg whites with a little salt, fresh pepper, and touch of olive oil, my mother would cook the egg whites until they were semi solid – sometimes in a pan over open fire, sometimes in the oven. Once they reached her ideal consistency, she would gently add the yolks on top, and then cover with a lid for a minute or two, or stick the pan back in the oven, until the egg yolks were just barely set, and then take them out. Finally, she would take the newly harvested truffles, and shave them generously over the eggs, until you couldn’t see the yolks or whites any more.
That first bite? Supple, fluffy whites…rich, creamy, runny yolks…and of course, the indescribably earthy, savory, pungent flavor of the truffle that marries everything together into perfection, transporting me in that moment to my happy place.
It seems like today, truffles are everywhere! Everything on menus, in stores, and online seems like it’s all infused, scented, dusted, inspired… so the question is… is it really?
The answer is no. There are some companies that lean into the magic of food science to use synthesized flavors and scents to enhance dishes with artificial this and that – most predominantly in the form of truffle oils. However, there are some companies out there creating amazing infused/adjacent/truff-tastic products for consumption using real truffles instead of synthetics.
One such company, Sabatino Tartufi, has been in the truffle business for over a century, since 1911, and have created genuine, authentic products that are accessible to everyone, professional chefs and home cooks alike. I know this, because I learned of this company many years ago, during my travels through Italy as a lobbyist. Often, we would detour to Umbria to enjoy the world’s most famous truffles.
While it’s true that a professional chef would love nothing more than to have an endless supply of the finest tubers on the planet, the reality for many of us in the industry is that fresh truffles can be prohibitively expensive, as not only are these precious commodities, but they are also highly perishable.
Sabatino Tartufi came up with some amazing solutions for this issue, with their incredible proprietary method for extracting flavor and essence from real truffles imported from their land in Italy to their state-of-the-art factory in Connecticut. One of my favorites being their Truffle Zest line. As a purist at heart, I really appreciate their original Zest, which can be used to add a little bit of that unctuous, earthy, umami essence to literally any dish, from seafood, to soups, salads, sauces, eggs – when I say anything, I mean anything!
So, whether you’re a truffle lover, or simply dipping your toes in the waves, there’s a truffle out there for everyone, just waiting to be unearthed. Kalí órexi! Enjoy your meal!
Don’t forget— Chef Maria Loi has the Loi Specialty Shop at The Plaza Hotel (now open through January 2023).