Foodstuffs: Truffle Oil

A while ago, my wife was visiting Paris for a conference and I insisted that she go to the famous Maxim’s restaurant. Indeed, I put some money in her account so that she would be sure to go… Anyway, while there she had a number of dishes, one of which was a salad of lobster and truffles. I was especially envious of this because I have still yet to experience the taste of actual truffles and, so far, have had to make do with its lesser cousin, truffle oil, which is traditionally made by steeping truffles in olive oil.

Truffles are a fungus that grows underground and they are especially associated with France and Italy where hunters use dogs or pigs to find them. They are hard to come by and thus very expensive. They come in both a white and black variety and, unsurprisingly, oils do as well. The variety pictured above is made with black truffles, but Urbani makes a white truffle version as well. I have had bottles of the white kind in the past but I cannot for the life of me recall any special difference between the two. It would be interesting to do a taste comparison with both of them sometime.

By the way, while doing a little research for this post, I was surprised to learn that not all oils are made with actual truffles but are instead synthesized. Apparently, industrial processes reproduce a number of aromatic compounds found in truffles including a thioether with the appetizing name ‘2-4 dithiapentene’. Naturally, when I read this I became concerned whether or not I had bought the true article or a heavily chemical substitute. At Amazon, where the product is sold, a reviewing chef who publishes a blog called Zen Can Cook, claimed that this brand is the best he has come across and writes that it ‘has none of the synthetic flavorings some other brands use’. Other reviewers slammed the product however, with one stating quite bluntly that it contains nothing but chemicals and olive oil. Well, obviously, I went and looked at the label and I see that the ingredients include olive oil and black truffle. I also see, however, a listing for ‘Aroma’ that is not further identified and I can only conclude that the Urbani brand is a hybrid of the natural and the synthetic. In each bottle, as you can see in the picture, is a tiny brown fragment that I presume is a piece of truffle to verify the natural origin…. at least, I sincerely *hope* that is what that little brown chunk is!

The Taste

Well, let me first say that both the taste and aroma of truffle is very, very hard to describe because the oil, and I presume the actual truffle have a taste that is unique. On opening and smelling the bottle there is a definite earthy-fruitiness to the bouquet but some of the fruitiness may be due to the olive oil. The taste also has a warm fruitiness and an earthy quality; indeed, ‘earthy’ seems to be one of the more commonly employed adjectives employed in descriptions of the taste. Some use the word ‘musky, but I don’t get that myself. I associate muskiness with the smell of certain animals and with some types of incense but I don’t detect either here. Beyond the fruity-earth quality, I get notes of brown toast and hazelnut along with a faint hint of pepper, and that is about as far as I can get in describing the unique sensory experience.  As to how the oil compares to fresh truffles I cannot say but many have opined that it is really a very poor substitute. One writer here repeats an unattributed quote to the effect that: “Comparing truffle oil to real truffles is like comparing sniffing dirty underwear to having sex”. Personally, I don’t feel qualified to have an opinion as to apt an analogy that might be.

The Usage

Truffle oil is very versatile and can add a nice taste fillip to many things. It can be drizzled where olive might be … on Bruschetta, or even pizza, for example… and it adds a lovely richness to many pasta dishes and sauces. I especially love it with mushrooms, as it really brings out the full fragrance of the blander varieties. I have also seen recipes where the oil is used in oil and vinegar salad dressings instead of more pedestrian types like olive or canola. This is a nice idea and one I intend to pursue. In surfing, I came across quite a lot of nice ideas, some of the best of which I am linking you to below:

I will be using truffle oil in an experiment tomorrow and will post the results in due course. I really would like to do something with actual truffles someday and I see at the Urbani website that they carry fresh truffles as well as the oils. It would be nice if I could get some shipped up here when they are in season.

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