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|For more information, check out "The Allure of Truffles" and "Truffle Madness," in the Jan. 31 issue, on sale now.|
The Allure of Truffles
It's peak time for the black winter variety of this famous fungus
By Sam Gugino, photographs by Jonathan Smith
The black winter truffle season is in full swing with early reports indicating that this year's crop will be plentiful, much better than last year's so-so harvest. So if you're not familiar with truffles, it's a good time to learn about the allure of this precious fungus.
The trufle currently in season is the black winter truffle (Tuber melanosporum). This truffle first appears in November and peaks in January and February. Italy, Spain and France, particularly Provence, all produce truffles. Perigord, the French region most closely associated with black truffles, is really more of a truffle market than a place where truffles are harvested.
The earthy aroma of black winter truffles is more subtle than the intensely musky and slightly garlicky perfume of white truffles (Tuber magnatum). But the aroma of white truffles fades easily, which is why they are not cooked but are typically shaved on dishes like pasta or risotto just before serving.
There is also a warm-weather black truffle, appropriately called the summer truffle. Depending on whom you talk to, black summer truffles are either a decent substitute for black winter truffles or a waste of time and money. "Early summer truffles in May or June taste like Styrofoam. But everyone has to have them," says Rosario Safina, co-owner of Urbani USA.
Similar to black summer truffles are Chinese black truffles (Tuber indicum or Tuber sensiese), also called Himalayan truffles because they come from the base of the Himalayan mountains in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and the Szechuan province of China. Their season runs from October to Chinese New Year, Feb. 5 this year.
Winter, summer and Chinese truffles all have a nubby black-brown exterior. The interior of summer truffles changes from white to a white-veined dark brown as the season develops. Winter truffles turn to charcoal gray or black at their peak. Chinese truffles are jet black inside when fully mature and are slightly smaller than black winter and summer truffles, which range from walnut to tennis-ball size. Though size doesn't effect taste or aroma, restaurants prefer golf-ball-sized truffles because they slice easily into thin rounds.
Truffles grow among the root systems of trees, about three to 12 inches below ground. Chinese truffles are found around conifers such as pine trees. Black winter and summer truffles grow among oak, hazelnut, chestnut, elm and poplar trees. Because truffles are foraged (with dogs, not pigs) they are not always as consistent as cultivated crops. However, companies like Urbani and Marché aux Delices, a truffle importer in Jersey City, N.J., are cultivating truffles in the United States and France (see "Truffle Madness," in the Jan. 31 issue, page 88).
The Price of Delicacy
With fresh black winter truffles expected to retail for $400 to $600 a pound -- up from $250 a pound three years ago -- it's no wonder that 90 percent of summer and winter truffles are made straight into truffle products. The best prepared alternative is called premier cuisson (first cooking) truffles. These are small whole truffles heated with a minimal amount of water in a can just until sterilized. The truffles are well-preserved and the juice is very flavorful. A better buy might be sliced summer truffles in a jar with winter truffle juice. Tubes of pureed winter truffles and truffle oil are also available.
Cooking (and drinking) with Truffles
In cooking at home, I found that fresh late summer truffles paled in comparison to premier cuisson and sliced summer truffles in a jar. The premier cuisson truffles produced a light earthy aroma and delicious nutty flavor when put on a baked potato with butter and salt (and then wrapped in foil to rest for five minutes). The sliced truffles, though good, weren't as pronounced. Truffle oil created only a faint truffle taste. Adding more just made things worse. Truffle puree tasted musty and artificial.
In addition to potatoes, the equally humble celery root is delicious with truffles. Regardless of the dish, truffles need one essential ingredient to make them sing -- fat. Rendered duck and goose fat are also good, as are oil and butter.
The earthy qualities of Rhône red wines match well with truffle dishes, as do the truffle-scented big reds of Italy's Piedmont. Dumonet also likes Bordeaux wines (reds and whites), especially those from Graves.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Cooking to Beat the Clock.
How to Get It
Here are some mail order sources for fresh black truffles and truffle products. Some companies also sell truffle slicers, but a cheese planer or vegetable peeler work almost as well.
Dean & Deluca
New York, (800) 221-7714
Marché aux Delices
Jersey City, N.J., (888) 547-5471;
Weehawken, N.J., (201) 902-0881
Urbani USA ;
Long Island City, N.Y.; Culver City, Calif.
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