The sought after fungi takes cheese to unique heights.
When we think of luxurious food ingredients, few carry the mystique, or command the price tag, of truffles. The fungi, not the chocolates.
Synonymous with the extravagance of four-star dining, the price per pound may exceed a month’s rent. The cost of truffles is related to the challenges of harvesting them, bringing these highly perishable fungi to market and selling them under the pressure of an extremely short shelf life.
Once harvested, these tubers, priced by weight, must be shipped and distributed within 36 hours to a prevent a water loss of 10 percent per day. Fresh truffles must be consumed within five to seven days to avoid becoming mushy (over ripe) and losing their most salient feature—the aromatics. They are a fragile product that can be easily damaged by processing and direct heat during cooking, so they require expert handling.
Perhaps these facts can help us appreciate why they are so expensive, although that won’t make the price any easier on the pocketbook.
Upping the Ante
To get more truffle-bang for the buck when craving a bit of culinary pizzazz, think truffle cheese. In recent years, the presence of truffle cheese has mushroomed in the marketplace. Cheese with truffle inclusions is a smart way to grate on layers of flavor for a fraction of the cost. Still, add the word ‘truffle’ to any product, and you can expect to pay a premium. When is this coveted ingredient worth it? And when is it hype? A little background can help us to discern the difference.
Truffles grow among tree roots and have an important forest-nurturing function that goes beyond the mere titillation of gourmet palates. Given their ecological role, their valuation might be as ethically desirable as a carbon tax. The thought of truffles may conjure up the image of hogs running through woodlands with farmers in hot pursuit. But since 1985, Italy has banned truffle-hunting sows. Apparently, they make pigs of themselves plundering the terrain and scarfing down the treasured fungi. Trained dogs, on the other hand, particularly the Lagotto Romagnolo breed, simply paw at the ground to signal they’ve detected the scent.
Make no mistake, the flavor of truffles is mostly in the human nose, too, which leads us to chemical abuse; that is, aromatic spiking through the use of 2 4-dithiapentane (bismethylthio methane), a petroleum-formaldyhyde-based sulfide, known to be an eye, lung and skin irritant. The chemical is used in so-called truffle oils to imitate the white truffle (Tuber magnatum) aroma. Surprisingly, most oils contain no real truffle whatsoever. The synthetic aroma, which mimics only a key component, primes consumers to expect less range and subtlety. For example, take just a single type of fresh truffle, the black melanosporum. I found that in sampling just a few within that species, there was a different aromatic flavor profile for each one.
Given that you will pay a premium for any truffle product, check the ingredients. What does flavoring, essence or aroma actually mean? Usually, it means chemicals. As I reviewed more than a dozen truffle cheeses, the degree to which the aromatics were synthetically spiked influenced my selection process. Synthetics suggest either penny-pinching or a lack of skill. Remember that truffle is fragile and loses aroma along with its moisture. When processing truffles, timing and technique are everything to lock in flavor. Since ‘truffle’ implies luxury, we should expect to pay for a truffle cheese priced to reflect authenticity and expertise.
A Truffle Education
A multitude of truffle species, both wild and cultivated, grow around the world, but only a handful are worth eating. To explore fresh truffles and truffle products, I visited the showroom of Urbani Truffles in New York City, where I met with Marta Castillo Peinado, food scientist and manager of the Urbani Truffle Lab. Unfortunately, it was in February, too late for the White Truffle (Tuber magnatum) season, but I was able to sample a few three-day-old Black Winter Truffles (Tuber melanosporum). Shaved razor thin, the aromas ranged from floral to earthy or spicy. They are each so varied that Marta advises local clients to come in to select ones with the aromatic profiles they prefer. On the palate, the floral smelling truffle was the sweetest. For me, once in the mouth, the experience quickly shifted to texture. One was powdery, another mildly fibrous. Marta described the White Alba Truffle (Tuber magnatum) as more delicate, saying it melts on the tongue.
Truffles are seasonal and predominantly grown in Europe (France, Italy and Spain, for the most part). But since they are now being cultivated in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in Australia, the boundaries of seasonality are expanding for certain types. Climate change looms as a consideration for future growing locations. North Americans are laying the groundwork to farm truffles by planting hazelnut, oak and other trees that are hospitable to European species.
A native species, the Oregon Truffle (both black and white varieties) grows wild in the Pacific Northwest from Northern California to British Columbia, wherever Douglas Fir forests are found. Another native type is the Pecan Truffle that takes its name from its affinity for pecan orchards. Of the many truffle cheeses I encountered, all used prestigious European species. That suggests a potential for North American artisan cheesemakers to embrace truffles reflecting their own terroir.
In the accompanying sidebar, you will find a list of truffles that you are likely to encounter in cheese, followed by a truffle cheese containing that particular type. When shopping, you may see words, such as Vitt. (Vittadini) or Pico, after the Latin names of the tuber. These are the names of the mycologists credited with first describing that particular species centuries ago. Products are often labeled ‘Black Truffle’ or ‘White Truffle’, but unless the manufacturer lists the Latin name, it’s hard to know what you’re actually getting.
Truffles and Cheeses that Contain Them
Tuber Magnatum (Pico) aka White Italian or Alba Truffle
Grown in the Piedmont region of Italy, available from mid-September to December/January. This is the most highly prized variety, increasingly rare and so valuable that it almost never shows up in a cheese.
Central Fromaggi (Italy) first developed Smeraldo al Tartufo Bianco for a private client before making it seasonally available. You can generally find it in November/December and sometimes around Easter time. This is a Sardinian sheep Pecorino, aged approximately five to six months, with a natural truffle aroma of French oniony soup and subtle umami notes that play harmoniously in the Pecorino.
Serving suggestion: Shave some onto an elegant risotto or let it work its magic on a simple baked potato. Exquisite!
Tuber Melanosporum (Vittadini) aka French Black Winter or Perigord Truffle
Available from January through the end of March, Australian melanosporum are available from June-August.
Tuber Uncinatum (Chatin) or Black Burgundy Truffle
Grown across much of Europe, they are a type of autumn/winter tuber available from September to late December.
Tuber Aestivum (Vitt) or Summer Black or White Truffle
Aestivum seems to be the most common variety of truffle used in cheese. Four delicious examples are listed below. Grown prolifically around the Mediterranean coast, it is easy to understand why aestivum is the black truffle of choice for many products. The French company Agour refers to aestivum as a ‘White Summer Truffle,’ while most others describe it as a ‘Black Summer Truffle.’ To avoid confusion, check for the Latin name on the label. Aestivum are available May-August. Although the same species as the Winter uncinatum (Burgundy) truffle, they are different in appearance and taste.
Central Fromaggi’s (Italy) Moliterno al Tartufo. Aged a total of six months in a base of Sardinian Pecorino, the producer uses a unique technology to deliver genuine truffle into this cheese as well as the Smeraldo. The Moliterno flavor is full-bodied, more beefy-umami than the Smeraldo.
Agour’s (France) Fromage de Brebis a la Truffle, a younger Basque sheep’s milk cheese. The aroma is more vegetal than in the Moliterno.
Serving suggestions: The Moliterno and the Agour are my personal favorites to grate on any style of pasta al dente. Superb!
Cypress Grove’s (USA) Truffle Tremor.
While truffles often seem lost in soft and fresh cow’s milk, such as Brie-style cheeses and Burrata, Truffle Tremor strikes an impressive balance. Perhaps the reason Tremor succeeds is that it’s actually a goat cheese. Think Humboldt Fog without the ash. Truly elegant!
Serving suggestion: A starring role on any cheese board with fruit or vegetable crudités.
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.’s (USA) Toma Truffle, released in 2019, is aged 90 days. Point Reyes achieves a subtle balance of truffle and buttery toma base.
Serving suggestion: A harmonious companion for crunchy, whole grain breads. Or add panache as a last minute toss into scrambled eggs.
Tuber Albidum (Pico) aka Tuber Borchii (Vittadini) or White Bianchetto Truffle
Easily confused with white truffle, this is Albidum not Alba. These Bianchetto are small spring truffles available from mid-winter-April.
Il Forteto’s (Italy) Cacio di Bosco al Tartufo, is aged 150 days. The Bianchetto truffle has a pronounced garlicky flavor that plays well against the sweet caramel and nut notes of this semi-soft Pecorino. Serving suggestion: Try it with a baguette and a citrusy preserve or shave it onto polenta.