Mushroomy doesn’t quite cut it. Truffles are utterly intoxicating; a heady scent that if you find yourself hooked will turn you a bit googly-eyed at just the mention of it, like the cologne of someone you fancy, or your clothes after the best Bonfire Night bash ever.
Imagine, that deep musky fragrance of a brand-new leather jacket. Now add garlic. Not raw or roasted but just softened slowly and lovingly in a whole heap of butter. Finally, yes, OK, they’re a bit mushroomy but on the rich, damp, autumn leaves side of things, not that forgotten jar of dried porcini.
How are they grown?
Truffles are almost impossible to cultivate, their weird little tendrils (aka mycorrhizal fungal filaments) fling out under the ground wherever they like and cannot be steered. Harvesting them requires expertly trained dogs. Pigs were used but they kept eating the truffles, whereas dogs are happy to exchange their findings for a handful of cooked sausages.
What are the varieties?
White truffles grown in northern Italy are the most expensive of all and their fragrance is deeper and more dizzying. Acqualagna, in the northern part of Le Marche, Italy, hosts an annual truffle festival where rows of stalls line the market square all selling whole truffles and truffle-related products. The whole town smells incredible. Well worth a visit.
Black truffles grow well in France — Périgord produces particularly fine ones. The taste is not dissimilar to white but their perfume is less intense and musky, so you may find them more versatile in cooking. Black summer truffles pop up in supermarkets, now at an affordable price as they grow across Europe. But if you can, try to search out jars of minced black truffles in oil instead.
How are they used?
An affordable way to enjoy truffles - particularly white truffle - is in oil. Buy the best quality you can afford even in a tiny bottle, as a little goes a long way. Look out for ones that are made with white truffles and not artificially flavoured or blended. Pastes made from parmesan cheese, cream and white truffle are also very useful for giving a punch of truffle flavour to sauces and risottos.
Truffles are best eaten fresh but you can store for a few extra days by covering them in rice, (see below), flavouring the rice this way lays the groundwork for a spectacular risotto for when your truffle is almost all gone. Alternatively, just half a teaspoon of minced black truffle folded through softly scrambled eggs is pure luxury and won’t break the bank. Take care to look out for those without added flavourings, or excessive padding from cheaper mushrooms.
If you’ve not tried truffles before, the best thing to do is to shave them over a bowl of fresh pasta — al dente tagliatelle or parpadelle is best. Toss the hot pasta in butter and a good splash of the pasta cooking water. Dress with a scant drizzle of truffle oil, a generous grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano, then finely shave the truffle on top.
If you can’t get a truffle cutter then slice as finely as you can with a knife or use a grater. Season with a little black pepper and dive in. Truffle is rich in umami so works incredibly well with steak. Fold minced black truffle through mayonnaise for an uber-lux topping for your burger or work into a flavoured butter and take your steak-and-chips game up a few notches. Not forgetting that, as it’s a fungus, adding just a drizzle of truffle oil will make even the simplest mushroom dish really sing.
How to choose a truffle
If you can get your hands on a whole truffle, choose carefully. Give it a proper sniff before you buy (it should be richly perfumed) and have a good squint at it too. Truffles are sold by weight so if there’s a cheaper one that’s larger than the rest, it might be full of holes where an insect has got to it before you have. So, be wary, watch out for lumps of clay-rich soil stuck into the crevasses making it heavier too.
Once you’ve chosen your truffle, carefully clean off any obvious dirt, dry them carefully with kitchen paper and get it into a jar of risotto rice. Keep them in there for a couple of days or no longer than a week. If you leave them much longer they can start to shrivel up.
Want to try your hand at cooking these addictive truffles yourself?
Try Barney Desmazery’s Vincisgrassi, a rich wild mushroom lasagne.
Or, Ben Tish’s crowd-pleasing truffled parsnip bake.
What's your favourite way to enjoy truffles? Let us know in the comments below...