When it comes to truffles, it pays to know a few facts about the weird biology and the often duplicitous nature of the truffle business.
Truffles are mushrooms that have evolved to grow underground. When the spores of the truffle mature, the fungus produces aromatic compounds that attract animals. The animals dig up the truffle, and the truffle spores become dispersed. The truffles we prefer to eat have evolved to attract swine (hence the tradition of putting pigs to work hunting them). The truth is, the truffle itself doesn’t taste like much. It is the gas that gives truffles their flavor.
But the smell! It’s as if a sulfuric love bomb went off. If you could roll in the smell, you would. For lunch, his wife, Maria, serves the little truffles Mario won’t be able to sell, ground with butter and black pepper and spread on a cracker, and then again, shaved over soft, eggy tagliatelle. On the train ride back to Florence, I reek of truffles, which elicits knowledgeable smiles and nods from my fellow commuters.
Lots of language has been used to describe the truffle flavor: mold, garlic, soil, onions without heat, meat, sweet body odor — but those descriptors are beside the point. Truffles are irresistible because their aroma is composed of chemicals that mimic mammalian reproductive pheromones. Eating, even sniffing, a truffle is a bit like being drugged. (And sorry, it doesn’t make you randy.)
They are expensive because they are difficult to grow, hard to find in the wild, in decline because of climate change and habitat loss, and in high demand. There are lots of species, but the most valuable ones are powerfully flavorful: the Tuber magnatum pico, the Italian white truffle, and the Tuber melanosporum, the Périgord truffle. The Périgords are in season now (the white truffles are almost done), with sales peaking around the holidays. Prices fluctuate, but this year white truffles retailed for up to $350 an ounce — about what you would need to garnish two entrees — and Périgords about $180.
Unfortunately, consumers may find their pricey purchases more blah than blow-me-away. That’s usually because the truffle is past its prime and no longer producing the aroma from which its flavor is derived.
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