I bought my first black winter truffle! Yes this is cause for jumping up and down excitement for me. If you've been following this blog recently you've have already seen my beautiful darling, enjoyed on a very special Valentines dinner. And it was bea-u-ti-ful! I cannot overstate this fact. The smell was intoxicating, with its rich deep wild mushroomy aroma and an overwhelming reminder of earth and dirt. All of that along with a floral pungency. This is the best way to describe the sensory nature of such a unique gift from the earth.
It traveled a long way from the chalky soiled forests of the Perigord region in Southwestern France, sniffed out by a well trained dog likely, who was hopefully rewarded with filet mignon. The truffle hunter perhaps would have been a weathered old timer who knows how to find a truffle by a shadow at the base of a tree or the sound of the earth as his trusty hound pitter-pattered about on his task. This may sound overly romantic but given that we are speaking of a part of the world that I'm already head over heels in love with you can understand my desire to paint an idyllic picture of how this little nugget moved about its way towards me. Of course, deep down I know that its likely a very different story, hopefully not one full of danger and darkness and shifty characters, which has been known to happen in this high priced high demand world truffle trade. Soon after harvest it would have made its way to a raucous truffle market such as Sarlat or Carpentras where it was purchased and eventually made its way here to Vancouver.
So what's the big deal, you ask? You might never have had the opportunity to enjoy a truffle, or even given them a lot of thought. Well I have, which is why I went to the trouble of calling a local specialty food distributor that supplies the finest restaurants in Canada and the US with such things as truffles and other wild products. They don't normally sell to the public, but with an appointment and some cash in hand, he was kind enough to let me come by. An address error which left me unable to find the location of this nondescript, signless warehouse space almost evaporated my anticipation. But after persevering I made it, not willing to give up on this opportunity. My contact gave me a quick tour of the tickle trunk that is their warehouse. This utilitarian space is packed with the kinds of specialty products most of us only enjoy on a restaurant plate. There were boxes full of the finest aged risotto rices from Italy, fresh chickpeas, wild mushrooms galore, unique greens, gorgeous French green beans, nut oils and hard to find Provencal olive oils from France, barrel aged maple syrups and every kind of truffle product you have imagine. If I knew I wasn't taking him away from his very busy job I could have spent hours in there. I thanked him for the gracious tour and left with a beautiful black truffle carefully wrapped in paper towel and a plastic bag to preserve its aroma and flavour, sneaking whiffs at every traffic light on the way home. My little glorious bit of earth that was worth the adventure and the hefty pricetag. I left like a kid with a new kitten- gloriously excited, dreaming of the best scrambled eggs and pasta I would ever taste.
I've been lucky enough to have enjoyed a few truffle dishes in restaurants in my life, some of which were amazing, some not as much, but all interesting and exotic. I also have truffles oils and salts in my pantry at all times to give the reminder of truffles at any time of year. While not the same as the real thing, these can be great products in their own right and are certainly readily available and inexpensive in comparison. I had the pleasure of purchasing an Italian summer truffle not that long ago and while summer truffles are not considered as special as their winter cousins, they are are also enjoyable for a much lower investment, mostly due to their larger availability and milder flavour. At the time I enjoyed it immensely, although now my viewpoint has been altered, which is usually the down side of having the chance to try the best of any food product.
What exactly is a truffle you might be wondering? Its a fungus, basically another type of mushroom, that grows wild in Southern France, Spain and Italy and also in the Himalayas and Oregon. They are often found near roots of walnut and oak trees and require the keen smell of a pig or usually a dog to hunt them down. The pigs are more likely to eat the truffle, which is why dogs are more common now. But a truffle gatherer will need more than the use of a trained animal to gather his pay. A skilled hunter will know how identify signs on the ground that signal spores and will have a keen eye for shapes and colours that the rest of us would surely miss. The season for winter truffles is usually December to March and the most coveted truffles are found in Southern France and Northern Italy where truffle markets are held weekly during the season. Himilayan truffles are not of the same value or distinction but have their uses and are a fraction of the cost of their Italian and French cousins. There have been instances of fraud where they are passed off as a French truffle for the same price which is another reason to purchase from reputable dealers.
Truffles cannot be cultivated, although attempts have been made that have proved largely unsuccessful. Their high demand, unpredictable nature and decreasing production makes them a luxury item with a high pricetag. As with anything wild it is hard work for a forager usually involving difficult terrain, all kinds of weather conditions and intense competition with not guarantees that that trip to the forest will actually pay that day. Once you understand what goes into getting this food item on your plate you understand the high costs involved. And unfortunately for us, less and less of them are being found every year, no where near enough to satisfy demand. I'm hoping the truffle market might crash like the stock market, only to make it more available to me, but somehow I doubt that will happen.
A winter truffle such as this is on my list of foods to enjoy before you die. But unfortunately their high price tag makes it simply too much of a luxury. I'm thinking next year a truffle dinner party might be in order for my friends. With an entrance fee, a chance to enjoy a less marked up version of one of natures miracles. Of course even at this price I'm thinking an application process might be in order.