They look like nothing more than globules of mud. Sometimes black, sometimes umber and, occasionally, when they are very good, the off-white of dirty laundry. They smell deeply and intensely of musk and, yet, they rank among caviar and champagne as one of the most expensive foodstuffs on earth; the height of culinary extravagance for even the most decadent of gourmands. We are talking, of course, about truffles.
Stemming from the Latin Tuber, which means lump, and therefore explains a lot, truffles grow, or more specifically partially live off, the host roots of trees, oak for black truffles, hazel and poplar for white truffles, but also beech and fir for lesser species. The truffle spores attach themselves to small nodules on the roots of the tree by a process named mycorrhiza, which allows the trees to absorb more nutrients, and the truffles to become, well, their highly-regarded selves. Curiously, it is only the black truffle that has thrived when cultivated.
Although more commonly associated with France and Italy, Spain has vast plantations of truffles (the village of Navaleno in Soria has some 600 hectares of truffle producing oaks, making it the biggest truffle plantation in the world), among them the superior black Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum, season December-March), Tuber brumale (also, confusingly called the black truffle or trufa negra, season also December-March) and the summer or Sant Joan truffle (Tuber aestivum, season May-December), which is whitish. It is not, however, to be confused with the best truffle of them all, the Tuber manatum of Piedmont, the famous white truffle of Italy (season October-end December).
It is useful to point out here that truffles are by no means a southern European delicacy. They are found just about everywhere if you know where to look, ranging from the deserts of the Kalahari (season February-April) to the Nordic forests of Finland. All like calcareous, well-drained soils, which are neutral or alkaline, and the shade of a strong and sturdy tree, but like most fungi, not all truffles are created equal.
For this reason they can also be prohibitively expensive. The rare Italian white truffle—Pico—recognised in only seven of the country’s northerly provinces, can fetch up to m6,000 a kilo, or more. In December 2007, a Macau casino owner by the name of Stanley Ho paid €185,000 for a Pico weighing 1.5 kilos. French black truffles, by comparison, only reach €2,000 for the same amount and Spanish are cheaper yet.
Food, especially when it is very expensive food, invariably comes cloaked in secrets and legends. Plutarch, an influential Greek philosopher and author, maintained that lightning was necessary for the formation of truffles, while romanticised nicknames have helped their cause, not to mention worth, no end: black diamonds, ivory princesses, and the more sexually explicit criadillas de tierra of Spanish lore—earth testicles—named for their looks and musky fragrance. Cicero called them the ‘children of the earth’, and their reputation as an aphrodisiac of almost magical powers was secured; especially given that as a food, the truffle has almost no nutritional value at all.
What it’s all about, writes Elisabeth Luard in her fascinating book, Truffles (Francis Lincoln), is pheromones: “Pheromones, for the uninitiated, are the chemical cocktail produced in the sweat-glands of football fans when they do the Mexican wave, by cabbage white butterflies to warn others where they’ve laid their eggs, and by people and pigs to attract a mate. They are also, as it happens, produced by truffles as a means of spreading their spores. Not to put to fine a point on it, when ripe and ready, the truffle reeks of sex.”
On top of this, a truffle is a temperamental and sensitive beast, which may or may not reproduce year-by-year. Gathering them is a specialist pastime that invariably involves a specialist hog (the disadvantage of hogs being that they tend to eat them when they find them) or dog (the disadvantages of dogs being that they tend to urinate on them to stake their claim). And if you thought the cazadores de setas were a secretive bunch, their cloak-and-dagger tactics are nothing compared to those who truffle the forests. Even if people do bypass the tricky path of obtaining the object of their desires themselves, they may still find that purchasing an off-market truffle for a more ordinary sum is as dicey as drug dealing in terms of getting ripped off. So they could be forgiven for thinking the truffle rather more trouble than it’s worth. Therein is its great allure.
The first time I had fresh white truffles finely sliced over a heap of fresh, buttery tagliatelle was at Can Ravell here in Barcelona. It was the finest pasta dishes I have ever eaten, though I thank my lucky stars to this day it wasn’t me that was picking up the tab at €75 a portion. But it did kick start, if not a complete obsession with the truffle, then at least an ongoing flirtation.
For those lucky enough to get their hands on fresh truffles, the thing to do is eat them immediately; grated over eggs or shaved onto pasta or risotto. Luard writes in her book of a New York chef who sandwiched a gossamer thin slice of unsalted butter between a slice of white and a slice of black, like an extravagant Oreo cookie, which sounds pretty good to me. For those who need to hang onto them suggestions abound, ranging from popping them in with a basket of eggs (with the added benefit of flavouring the eggs too) to putting them in the freezer, where they reportedly hold up well. In her book, Honey from a Weed (Prospect Books), Patience Gray suggests that truffles could also be preserved for a short while in vi ranci or cognac in a glass jar with hermetic closing.
Not being in possession of the kind of cash necessary for this kind of dinner on a regular basis, truffle oil offers an alternative, though it should be noted that real truffles are almost never used in oil. Instead an artificial flavouring such as 2,4-dithiapentane is used, which actually tastes all right, especially drizzled over a soft poached egg for example, but be aware, it should never and could never, be considered a substitute for the real thing.
The Catalan truffle season is from December through to March, during which time the markets of Olot, Vic, Centelles and Solsona fill with them.
Can Ravell; Aragó 313; 93 457 5114/ 93 457 5116; www.ravell.com
Loin of pork stuffed with truffles (adapted from a recipe by Elizabeth David):
Take a boned, two-kilogramme loin of pork and have your butcher trim it so that it is possible to lay out flat and then roll up again. With the fat side facing down, stud the pork with matchsticks of truffle (you can use canned truffles for this) alternated with slices of garlic. Season well with salt and pepper, roll up and tie with cooking string. Cook for about 30 minutes at 170ºC, then pour over 1/2-litre meat stock, and 1/4-litre white wine. Cover with foil and leave to cook slowly for another two hours. Leave the meat to rest for 10 minutes before carving. Meanwhile deglaze the juices to serve as gravy on the side. It goes well with creamy potatoes dauphinoise and green beans.