Truffles are one the most highly prized of cooking ingredients and, it should come as no surprise, are one of the costliest. They are particularly associated with the cuisines of Italy and France, each of which produces some of the best varieties, but they are also favored in Greece, Spain and the Middle East. There are actually many different species but, generally, you hear them of them as either being ‘White Truffles’ (chiefly Italian) or ‘Black Truffles’ (from the Perigord region in France). In point of fact, though, one of the more common, and thus cheaper, varieties is the ‘Summer Truffle’, which is the type you see pictured above. These are also sometimes referred to as ‘Summer Black Truffles’ and, by appearance at least, can be loosely be classed as a Black Truffle, even though they are held in lesser esteem than the Perigord type.
Unless you happen to live near to a harvesting region, obtaining fresh truffles is very difficult, not to mention highly expensive, as they do not keep well without being frozen, dried, or otherwise preserved. Most people, in fact, will generally only encounter truffles in the form of Truffle Oil (which is often actually synthetic), or perhaps in a processed condiment of some sort. The one way in which whole, real truffles are made available to the average kitchen is in brine or oil preserves. The two tiny ones I purchased for this post are Italian brine preserves and they cost $20.00 in a specialty market in Ottawa. The quality of the preserved sort is noticeably less than fresh, it must be said, but this is still a worthwhile tradeoff for not having access to the fresh delicacy in the first place…
Here is a close-up of the smaller of my two truffles in cross-section. As you can see the flesh is a nutty brown and is quite soft, with a texture very much like firm tofu. There is not much aroma when you open the jar (unlike with fresh truffles, or truffle oil) but the taste is moderately strong. It is actually rather difficult to describe the flavor of truffle to anyone who has not experienced it as it is really quite unique. Some describe it as an earthy taste but that doesn’t really convey the experience to my mind. The best I can say is that I find it to have a slightly sulfurous muskiness and a sweet nuttiness at the same time.
As with fresh truffles, these are best used with very bland foods such as potato, pasta, polenta or bread, and any cooking of them (if they are cooked at all) should be at low temperatures and for a very brief period. The aroma and flavor of truffles do not survive heat very well and it is generally best to add them to a dish after cooking, or just toward the end. One treat you can try to experience the flavor of truffles is to add shaved slices, or slivers to bruschetta with nothing else added other than a drizzle of good quality olive oil.
The above picture allows you to see the relative thickness of the ‘peel’ of the truffle. Many recipes instruct you to peel truffles before use but this isn’t necessary with some types as the peel is very thin to begin with and is soft enough to grate well along with the actual flesh. Here, that is not really possible as the rind is quite woody and tough. It does have flavor though so you don’t want to simply discard it after it has been removed.
Here you can see that I have added some peelings and trimmings of flesh to a little olive oil. If this is allowed to sit for a while, the flavor of the truffle will infuse the oil which can then be used as one would commercial truffle oil.
In any event, my little jar certainly doesn’t leave me with much to work with so I am going to have to husband what I have really well. In actual practice, the amount I have would easily be used for one dish for no more than two or three people. However, I am going to stretch it to two small dishes if I can and I will post the results in due course…