I spent the MLK holiday weekend in Napa Valley at the 2nd annual Napa Truffle Festival (I know, tough job right?). This event is put on by the American Truffle Company, a business launched by Robert Chang, who fell in love with truffles at first bite. While truffles grow primarily in France and Italy, Robert is determined to help farmers produce American truffles so that he, chefs and other truffle fans can get them fresher faster.
My main mission was to discover the best type of wine to pair with truffles, but with the 60 Minutes report on truffles airing just before the festival, it seems there’s a heightened interest to know more about truffles. There are some facts and some myths to debunk regarding these ugly, knobby but intoxicating balls. Will American truffles take root? We’ll have to wait about five years to find out.
1. Truffles are not chocolates. Truffles are edible, but they are not the dome shaped confections with flavored fillings.
2. Truffles are mushrooms. I thought they weren’t mushrooms but tubers or spores. I was wrong. Don’t tell my husband. He has an aversion to mushrooms. I think it’s a texture thing, and truffles don’t have that typical mushroom texture. So any time we get a dish with truffles in or on it, I have to reassure him that I’m not trying to get him to eat mushrooms. He’s still not a fan.
I understand his reluctance. The first restaurant dish I tried with truffles was a white bean soup with truffle oil. I almost spit out my first taste. To me it had a rank, dirty off-puttiing aroma. I sent it back, explaining I thought it was spoiled or something like that. I am sure the kitchen had a good laugh over the clueless woman who wouldn’t eat the soup. Since then I’ve been seduced by that pungent, earthy aroma. I have a developed a serious truffle habit, which can be more expensive than my shoe habit.
3. Truffles grow on trees…on the roots that is. Whoever said ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’ surely didn’t know about truffles.
Truffles grow underground, about one to four inches below, on the roots of certain varieties of oak and hazelnut trees.
For eons the only way you could harvest truffles was — and still is today — with the help of pigs or dogs. Thanks to their heightened sense of smell, they can find the ripe truffles growing underground. Pigs would not only find these gnarly things, they would eat them before the truffle hunter could get to it. Now dogs are mostly used, trained to just find the truffles and not to eat them.
4. Truffles grow wild, but some varieties can be cultivated. The two most well known truffles in the world are the black Perigord of France and the white winter truffle of Italy. In good years, the harvest is plentiful, but still small compared to other crops. In not so good years, when the summer weather is dry, there aren’t as many truffles to harvest. Truffles need summer rain to grow. It’s the unpredictable growing seasons that add to the scarceness of truffles and is one reason why truffle prices are so high, upwards of $850 per pound or more.
White winter truffles, also known as truffles from Alba, Italy cannot be cultivated. Which is why the are of the charts expensive, costing $2500 per pound or more. Perhaps Robert Chang and his team can unlock the key to that holiest grail of all truffles.
5. Many truffles grown in France are cultivated, not wild. Say adieu to the romantic myth of the elusive truffle growing wild in the forest. Why? The roots of oak or hazelnut saplings (baby trees) can be inoculated with truffles that grow once the tree is planted. It about five years until the first crop can be harvested, but then after that, truffle farms are the gifts that keep giving, producing for 40 to 80 years.
6. Truffles are best eaten as fresh as possible. Think of truffles like you would any produce, from corn to peaches to heirloom tomatoes. These are always more flavorful the fresher they are, especially if just picked. Truffles are the same. Their aroma and flavors diminish by half within four to five days. If the only place you can get fresh truffles is from the harvests in Europe, and these truffles have to be shipped to the United States, it’s a safe bet more than five days have passed since the truffles were plucked from the ground.
This is one reason why Robert Chang wants to grow truffles closer to or in the U.S. Chefs here are asking for fresher truffles, so he sees a market with an unmet need. However, don’t expect to see the price of truffles come down any time soon, even those farmed on American soil. Chang says truffles grown in Australia command an even higher price in that country because they’re fresher for chefs and consumers.
7. Truffles are the most profitable (legal) crop you can grow. Robert said this several times during the weekend. He estimates you can get up to $30,000 to $40,000 in profit per acre, once the farm starts producing truffles.
8. Truffles not only taste sublime, but they’re good for you. Some say truffles are an aphrodisiac, and that can be a good thing. But you can enjoy your guilty pleasure knowing there are antioxidants and even fiber (small amounts) in truffles. I wanted to know how many calories are in truffles, but no one could answer that.
9. Older wines pair really well with truffles. Vintner Rob Sinskey, of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, has actually planted a truffle orchard next to one of his vineyards in the Carneros region. He says truffles work best with wines that have a “patina” to them. After tasting a 2003 Chardonnay from Miner Family Vineyards, and Rob’s own 2000 Pinot Noir with truffles, I have to agree.
10. Many truffle oils and truffle salts are not made with real truffles. Chefs have strong opinions about this saying truffle products are made with chemicals that replicate the truffle aroma and flavor. When most of us buy a bottle of truffle oil, we think we’re getting the real thing because these are expensive products. But most likely the flavors come from chemicals, not actual truffles. There is even truffle vodka. I don’t know about that. Sounds like garlic wine, which is something in my opinion that shouldn’t be made.
Is using synthetic truffle flavors a culinary crime? If you can’t get the real thing, and like the truffle flavor, why not use the oils or salts? Just know what you are getting, and you can decide.