Truffles: the elusive, holy grail ingredient known worldwide. If you dine anywhere even pretending to be high end, you’re guaranteed to see it listed somewhere on the menu. So what’s the big deal with them? Are they so special? Do they make everything (macaroons) better? Info after the jump.
The wikipedia link above can give you most of the details about this famous fungus. The highlights:
- they’re a fungus
- they grow underground, normally near trees
- they’re found by truffle sniffing dogs or hogs (dogs are preferable since they don’t try to eat them when found)
Truffles are expensive because they’re somewhat rare. Steps were taken historically to plant fields of trees and cultivate them in France in the 19th century. Truffle cultivation began to take off, but due to a series of setbacks (the WW’s and development of land) truffle cultivation is still in its infancy today… hard to imagine since it’s considered a muse by chefs around the world.
In Asia, unfortunately, most people are falling into the hype. Truffles are truly amazing in fragrance and taste, but what you find on most menus here is truffle oil. Truffle oil is typically made up of a large amount of olive oil combined with a synthetic agent such as 2,4-dithiapentane. Most “truffle oil” contains little to no amounts of actual truffles!
Newer chefs with an extra measure of pretension or thriftier chefs who want to seem like they’re using choice ingredients use this oil as a substitute for the real deal to save costs and seem elite. Since the dishes are usually made to impress and seem epicurean, the results are often uninspired and in worse case scenarios are truly bad. Former NYT food critic Frank Bruni when giving advice on how to navigate a menu in a restaurant went so far as to say, “then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.”
True white or black truffles are a delight. Just smelling them once will leave you with a smell memory you can recall on command. The earthy, pungent aroma and flavor is instantly recognizable in any dish… it is rightly prized by top chefs worldwide, but it should be the real deal, not a cheap substitute.
Recently, we enjoyed a meal in one of Singapore’s premier restaurants (I’ll go so far as to say the nicest meal I’ve had to date in Asia) – Gunther’s. At the start of the meal the waiter came to each table with a tray of fresh, highly sought after ingredients including live lobster, specially marbled wagyu beef, etc… and as if that all wasn’t enough, he leaves and comes back with a simple tray with a glass top. Inside were 3 beautiful white truffles. The moment he lifted the glass dome from the tray the room filled with the ethereal scent of truffles. I enjoyed the moment again and again as each table was set throughout the night. We chose the chef’s tasting menu for the night and many of the courses that night featured white truffle in some way and it worked. But to answer the above question, truffles don’t make everything better. At the end of the meal we were treated to petit fours from the kitchen. One of the tasty treats was a white truffle macaroon and I’d have to say it’s the only thing that didn’t work all night. I can understand why some would go for the taste, but to me, not everything needs to taste earthy and developed
Who’s had, seen, smelled, and / or tasted real truffles? Have a favorite memory to share?