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Earthly Treasures: Black Truffles

T ruffles don’t live in a black and white world, so the term “black truffle” is not a precise one. There are several types of truffles that are black. To avoid confusion, it’s best to use the scientific names: Tuber melanosporum, Tuber uncinatum or Tuber aestivum, or their common names to differentiate between them.

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This black “diamond of the kitchen” has inspired not only chefs, but grateful diners for centuries. Alexandre Dumas (famous for writing “The Three Musketeers”) eloquently expressed his regard for the truffle when he said, “Eat one and adore God.”

A truffle is an irregular, round-shaped fruiting body of fungi, which grows underground in a symbiotic relationship on the roots of trees. On average, truffles vary in size from a walnut to a golf ball, but there are sometimes extraordinary finds of huge truffles that excite the international market and bring big money at auctions. Most commonly, truffles are found in France, Italy and Spain, but are also found in other countries, including parts of the United States and Australia. Because of their rarity (it takes years for a truffle to develop) and the trouble it takes to find them, truffles are expensive. Ongoing efforts to cultivate truffles have met with some success, but have never been able to fully replace the naturally-occurring, foraged truffle.

Finding the Elusive Truffle
As Edward Albee said, “You gotta have swine to show you where the truffles are.” And though that seems a witty joke about the dichotomous process - the lowly pig unearthing the exalted truffle--there is literal truth to it. Because the truffle depends on animals that eat fungi to spread its spores, it has a distinctive aroma at its peak of ripeness that attracts pigs, which can smell truffles under the earth. Pigs are wonderfully suited to rooting in soil, with sharp hooves and strong snouts, and if they take a little truffle spore with them, well, that’s fine with the truffles. In one of nature’s poetic and oddly tailored relationships, the truffle aroma smells like male pig musk, or sex hormone. In the frenzy to find this “mate” on the roots of trees, the female pig will dig up the truffles and devour them. All truffle pigs are female, since they are the most responsive to the scent of truffles (or male pigs). Truffle hunters have learned over the years that using pigs to locate their quarry is more than a little risky, as the sows are quick to gobble down the valuable truffles. These days, specially-trained dogs are used to locate and dig up truffles. The obvious advantage is that dogs are quite willing to trade the truffles they find for an edible treat or other reward.

A Truffle is a Truffle is a Truffle?
While there are hundreds of species of truffles, only a few of them are choice edibles. Aside from the most prized truffle of them all - the white truffle-- there are several types of black truffle that are treasured the world over.

Black Winter Truffle
Just as the white truffle is called the Alba truffle, after the region most famed for producing it, Tuber melanosporum is often called the black “Perigord” truffle, since the truffles of the Perigord region of France are legendary. However, melanosporum does grow in other countries, so this moniker is somewhat misleading. The black winter truffle is found in Europe from November through February, though the season can vary slightly. Recently, this truffle has been successfully cultivated in Australia, and since their winter is from June through August, we can enjoy an extension of the season when European winter truffles are gone. This is the truffle that drives people wild; it has dark, robustly veined flesh that appears almost black-purple, and has the strongest flavor and aroma of all the black truffles. 

Burgundy Truffle
Again, Tuber uncinatum is named for the region famous for producing it: Burgundy, France. Though it grows more widely than any other truffle species, from Spain to Eastern Europe, as far north as Sweden, and as far south as North Africa, it is often known simply as the “Burgundy.” Harvested from late September into December, the Burgundy truffle had pointed, diamond shaped “warts” on the skin. The flesh looks more chocolate in color than the black winter, or melanosporum, truffle. The aroma and taste are also less powerful, but still quite delicate and prized in kitchens all over the world.

Black Summer Truffles
At the other end of the spectrum from the intense black winter truffle is the mild summer truffle. Tuber aestivum is the scientific name for this truffle. The season is from May through September, and though they are black on the outside, the flesh of the summer truffle is pale with a fainter flavor than either the Burgundy or the black winter truffle. Summer truffles have a slightly nutty taste, and a texture that is on the crunchy side.

Truffles are nearly impossible to describe - their smell and flavor are intoxicating and all encompassing. Some claim that the truffle has aphrodisiac powers, and whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but all seem to agree that there is nothing like a truffle to bring magic to the table. Colette once confessed, "If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without truffles."