Truffles are vaguely associated with French farmers who lead pigs around on a leash as they root around in the ground looking for expensive mushrooms that rich people like to eat. Actually, this stereotype isn’t that far off.
Truffles are indeed a type of mushroom (the edible variety of truffles are classified as fungi, and more specifically as tubers). The difference is that the mushroom grows above ground, and the truffle grows below ground. Which is where the pigs come in.
Really, the only effective way to locate an underground truffle is through the sense of smell. By a fluke of nature, female pigs are perfectly suited to sniffing out these subterranean delicacies because the scent of a truffle has the same chemical characteristics as the scent excreted by boars (uncastrated male pigs) during mating season. Think about it. Human beings enlist pigs to find and harvest gourmet delicacies by tricking the pig into thinking it’s going to have sex. It’s one of those crazy natural coincidences that makes us believe God must have a sense of humor.
When the pig locates a truffle, the farmer whacks the pig over the head with a stick to make it back off, otherwise the pig will immediately eat the truffle and keel over in orgasmic spasms. Once the pig stands down, the farmer digs up the truffle and away they go. To avoid the pig-in-heat complication, more truffle farmers are enlisting truffle hunting dogs that can be trained to recognize the scent of a truffle. And it doesn’t look stupid to put a leash on a dog.
There are various kinds of edible truffles that are highly prized by gourmands. The white (Alba) truffle comes from the Piedmont region of northern Italy and is considered the most desirable and expensive of all truffles (a 3.3 pound white truffle sold for $330,000 in 2007). Similarly, the black truffle is associated with the Périgord region of France and is also highly sought-after. The French think their truffle is superior to the Italian truffle; the Italians respond by not caring what the French think. Both the white and black truffles are harvested in autumn and winter.
Not to be outdone, the black summer truffle is harvested starting in June and July. Although not quite as sought-after, and arguably less pungent than its cool weather cousins, it’s still a mainstay of summertime haute cuisine. Recently, Tony’s in Houston started serving black summer truffles from Lazio (the area around Rome, Italy) as an accompaniment to its regular menu. For about $30, you can have a generous amount of truffle shaved onto (or cooked into) any dish on the menu (call ahead for current availability and pricing). Never one to pass up the chance to sample an exotic delicacy, I rounded up three foodie friends and we headed to lunch at Tony’s to get our truffle on.
Upon arrival we were seated in Tony’s ornate but comfortable main dining room. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed and friendly for a restaurant considered the fanciest in town. The very professional and accommodating waitstaff at Tony’s — who, I imagine, have heard just about every crazy request imaginable — didn’t even blink when we said we wanted truffle shaved on everything. This included a burger, risotto, grilled cheese sandwich, and a chicken involtini. If it had been a little less expensive, we might have had them shave some truffle into our iced tea.
As it turns out, the musky, earthy essence of the truffle added a fascinating dimension to the flavor of our dishes. I had it shaved over a plate of risotto al porcini. Certainly tasty, but probably not the best choice, as the mushrooms and salty stock of the risotto competed mightily with the subtle pungency of the truffle (a risotto Milanese probably would have worked better). More successful was the grilled cheese sandwich (a fancy, Tony’s version to be sure, not the kind your mom made). The truffles were cooked into the melted cheese and a few were shaved over the top for good measure. The earthy truffle nicely complemented the yeasty bread and milky cheese.
Our black summer truffle lunch at Tony’s was both an enjoyable splurge and a foodie adventure. We left satisfied. Only a few more months to the white truffle season. I’m already saving up for that adventure.
This blog entry was originally posted 8 July 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.