September 14, 2016
European white truffles may well be the most expensive food in the world. With prices upward of $3600/pound in a slim year (supply and demand truly rule this market), white truffles top even Russian caviar ounce per ounce. Focusing solely on Italian truffles (tartufo sing. or tartufi plural), the most famous are found in the Piedmont region of Italy, near the city of Alba. They are located underground, often near the water, where the trees offer shade and protection. Every autumn, truffles are plucked from the roots of oak, hazel, poplar and beech trees to be sold at the truffle festivals in the region. Because of their increasing popularity, we see more and more truffles from other regions of Italy. Many believe that the Tuscan truffles, mainly found around Pisa and Siena, are just as flavorful, as well as more affordable and easier to get. For this reason, many tourists and truffle lovers alike have flocked to Tuscany to try, buy and even hunt these coveted fungi. Since I’ve been immersed in the planning of a “truffles and Turin trip” to Piedmont next fall (check here for updates), I became curious about the history and legends surrounding truffles. What makes them so special?
The origin of the truffle dates back to ancient Egypt, where they were popularly eaten covered in goose fat. According to the legend, a farmer once saw his pig eating the mushrooms, and seeing that they didn’t hurt him, decided to try some himself. After tasting, he and his “infertile” wife had 13 children! From then on, many believed that the truffle was God’s gift to humans and that it had supernatural healing powers. As the middle ages approached, truffles virtually disappeared. The Church believed that because of the strong aroma, truffles were the devil’s creation, so they were dubbed “witches’ fare”. Later, Louis XIV saved them from complete elimination, making them one of Europe’s most respected dishes. He set out to cultivate them, which unfortunately proved to be unsuccessful. By the mid 1800s, truffles exploded and experienced the largest production to date. Over 2,000 tons of truffles were scavenged throughout Europe. Then, after World War I, truffle hunting dropped dramatically due to the demolished rural landscapes. In 1960, the truffle intake dipped to only 40 tons. Even today, truffles are rare, enjoyed by few and and only on special occasions.
Do you like to enjoy truffles in the fall? Although it is harder to find (or afford!) fresh truffles in the States, there are other great ways to enjoy them. Truffle salt, although it has a short shelf life, is great to flavor almost every food. Enjoy it on pasta, steak, salad, eggs — almost any savory food. But beware, because it does “perfume” the kitchen! Another option is truffle oil, but this is very subjective; many don’t like it and say it is too strong. The truffle essence also goes away quickly, so personally, I don’t think it is worth it. The last option is canned truffles– but the act of preserving the truffles with heat often diminishes the aroma and flavor. If you want to try some on-line options and are looking for strong truffles to cook with, try these:
There are also a couple of other ways to indulge in truffles this fall. Try a truffle butter, like this:
or a popular truffle pate’, like this one:
TRUFFLE MAC N CHEESE
• Unsalted butter for baking dish, plus 4 Tbs. (1/2 stick)
• Salt, to taste
• 1 lb. elbow macaroni
• 2 tsp. truffle oil
• 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
• 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
• 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
• 2 cups milk
• 1 cup half-and-half
• Freshly ground pepper, to taste
• 1 1/2 cups shredded Gruyère cheese
• 1 1/2 cups shredded white cheddar cheese
• 2 Tbs. minced fresh chives
Preheat an oven to 375°F. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the macaroni and cook, stirring occasionally, until not quite al dente, about 2 minutes less than the package instructions. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. While the pasta is still warm, drizzle with the truffle oil and stir well.
Return the saucepan to medium-high heat and melt the 4 Tbs. butter. Add the flour, paprika and mustard and cook, stirring well, until no visible flour remains, 1 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk, half-and-half and a generous pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Simmer, whisking frequently to smooth out any lumps, for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add a pinch of pepper and 1 cup each of the Gruyère and cheddar. Stir until smooth.
Pour the cheese sauce onto the macaroni, add the chives and stir well. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and top with the remaining cheeses. Bake until the top is lightly browned and the sauce is bubbly, 25 to 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Serves 6.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma One Pot of the Day, by Kate McMillan (Weldon Owen, 2012).
LEEK AND TRUFFLE RISOTTO
Makes 6-8 first-course servings
• 2 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), halved, thinly sliced crosswise (about 2 cups)
• 3/4 cup whipping cream
• 1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, cut into 1/4- to 1/3-inch-thick slices
• 1 large onion, halved, thinly sliced lengthwise
• 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
• 1 tablespoon white truffle oil
• 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
• 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, divided
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 1 1/2 cups arborio rice or medium-grain white rice
• 1/2 cup dry white wine
• 5 cups (or more) hot vegetable broth
• 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 2 teaspoons shaved or chopped black truffle (optional)
• Chopped fresh parsley
1. For leeks:
1. Bring leeks and cream to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until leeks are tender and cream is thick, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Rewarm before continuing.
2. For mushrooms:
1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Toss all ingredients on rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until mushrooms are tender and light brown around edges, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.
3. For risotto:
1. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add rice; stir 1 minute. Add wine and stir until almost all liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup hot broth. Simmer until broth is almost absorbed, stirring often, about 4 minutes. Add more broth, 1 cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding next and stirring often, until rice is tender and mixture is creamy, about 20 minutes longer. Stir in leek mixture, mushroom mixture, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, cheese, and truffle. Transfer to large bowl, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.
White truffle oil is sold at some supermarkets and at specialty foods stores and Italian markets. Black truffles are available at specialty foods stores and from igourmet.com. A flavorful substitute for the shaved truffles is the Truffle Gatherers Sauce ($19), which can be ordered from fungusamongus.com.