Last week I had some food-related excitement in my life. Since I started this blog three and a half years ago I've naturally identified a few special exotic/disgusting foods and beverages on my "bucket list." Some of these are Beluga caviar (which I think is now banned from being imported into the U.S. due to the sturgeon's rarity, and is ridiculously expensive), bird's nest soup (not sticks or anything--it's made from the hardened saliva of certain birds in Southeast Asia, and is very rare and pricey), Rocky Mountain "oysters" (animal testicles), fugu (puffer fish, which due to its extreme toxicity if prepared incorrectly I'll probably save for a death bed meal), and various tough-to-get beers, like Trappist Westvleteren 12 (Belgium), Russian River's Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder (California), and Tree House Brewing's Julius (Massachusetts). One of these other foods, obviously is truffles. So I was pleasantly surprised that the Hannaford supermarket in St. Albans, VT had some.
Truffles are a form of fungus that lives underground. They're closely associated with, and grow on the roots of various species of tree, like pine, beech, poplar, oak, and birch, among others. They're native to parts of Europe, including France, Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia. Historically they've been difficult to acquire, since you can't see them like you can mushrooms. It was discovered that dogs can be trained to detect their odor, and that female pigs can do so naturally. Therefore, short of digging randomly around the appropriate trees, people used these animals to find the truffles. Once they do, the trick is to stop them from eating the truffles themselves, as dogs and pigs find them tasty, too. As such, truffles became a delicacy, and very expensive. As of 2009, certain types of truffles could set you back over $14,000 per kilo!
Now, readers might be asking the same question that I did, mainly, "Why don't farmers just learn how to grow them, instead of relying on trained pigs and such?" Well, the answer is that they did. As early as 1808 people in Europe had developed ways to cultivate them. By the late 1800's and early 1900's truffle cultivation was at its peak. Alas, among their other horrible effects, the World Wars really hurt truffle cultivation, as they destroyed the trees/fields, many of the farmers themselves, and therefore, some of the knowledge about how to grow them most efficiently. By 1945 truffle cultivation had plummeted, and people were left more and more with the classic put-a-muzzle-on-a-sow-and-follow-her-around-until-she-starts-digging method. Things have improved somewhat in the past few decades, though, and now they're grown throughout Europe, parts of the U.S. and Canada, and in India, China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
There are several different sorts of truffle. The most prized is the white truffle, which has a distinct strong odor and flavor. Next is the black truffle, which is thought to have a milder and more refined taste. These two are considered the classic types of truffle. However, in more recent years a couple of others have been utilized. A kind found in the Pacific Northwest, the garlic truffle, is gaining some popularity. A Southern U.S. variant, the pecan truffle, is also starting to be sampled.
Because of their scarcity and price, truffles are frequently divided into smaller pieces and added to other foods as flavoring. Some stuffings, cheeses, and pates are made in this way. There are even truffle flavored honey and salt. I was disappointed to learn that so called truffle oil is usually a misnomer, as it's commonly made with artificial flavoring and not real truffle bits.
As readers can no doubt guess, since I didn't recently win the lottery or see my writing career suddenly blossom to the extreme, the truffles I had were not whole. I got them in a mousse (like a pate) that was mostly pork and chicken livers, and was about $6 for a 5.5 ounce serving. The manufacturer was Les Trois Petits Cochons, Inc. (The Three Little Pigs, in French) out of Brooklyn, NY. My truffles were apparently grown in the U.S., as the label didn't mention anything about them being imported. Now I realize that this is a bit of a cheat, since probably 1-5% of the total mousse consisted of truffle parts. It's a bit like judging, say, a fine rare champagne or whiskey based on an eye-dropper's worth of liquid. But, with this limitation admitted, I did technically try some truffles.
The truffle mousse looked a lot like liverwurst, as it was a pinkish brown color, and had a soft texture which could be spread with a knife. Scattered throughout the mousse were the small pieces of black truffles. I tried some of the mousse plain, and then some on potato chips, and finally some on a roll as a truffle mousse sandwich. I also separated some individual black truffle pieces from the mousse as best I could, and ate these by themselves. The mousse was very tasty--it was like a creamier liverwurst. The individual truffle chunks were underwhelming, though. They didn't taste bad, but they didn't blow me away with their dramatic excellence. They were like regular mushrooms--good certainly, but not like I'd imagined given truffle's reputation.
However, as I said, my truffle trial was minimal--I'm sure even foods I love might not taste that special if they're cut into tiny pieces, and also placed in another, stronger tasting food. So I haven't given up on truffles, and would jump at the chance to try some again, especially in a purer, larger format. But to do so will evidently require me to invest really well, and/or marry a millionaire heiress or become an organized crime lord.
(Also, I just recalled I might have had truffles before. Again, it was another food item which had small pieces mixed into it--in this case, cheese. (Thanks to Ricky for this.) I seem to remember that my opinion about truffles that earlier time was the same as this recent time.) Update: It turns out that my memory was a little off (which seems to be happening more and more as I age). Ricky reminded me that the cheese in question had morel mushrooms in it, and not truffles. So the mousse was the first and only time I've ever had truffles.