My first, and most incredible, black truffle experience was a very long time ago in Paris, dining at Alain Senderens’ first restaurant (eponymous, I believe).
It was a poached whole black truffle, over an inch in circumference, giant by personal truffle standards, resting in a pool of ethereal lobster soup. The aromas alone were heavenly, not to mention the decadence of eating a whole “black diamond”.
Fast forward to another occasion in France, wandering into Boyer Les Crayeres in Reims, France, exhausted from driving, a little too late for regular midday service, and asking if they could just make a salad. “Mais, oui!” A few minutes later, out came perfect bread, flutes of Champagne, and deliciously dressed greens, covered in a blanket of shaved black truffles. This is what I call a nice, light lunch.
Truffles are a kind of mushroom which grows wild underground, harvested with the assistance of pigs or dogs specially trained to be attracted to their unique aroma. There are hundreds of types of truffles, the most prized of which are the black ones from Perigord, France, and the whites from Northern Italy.
Many other types exist, of varying quality, some marketed honestly (and costing much less) and some sold as the prime types by unscrupulous dealers. There have even been mini crime waves in the major truffle hunting locations, as some poachers resort to violence because of the size of the prize.
White truffles are just as much a delicacy as the black, although used quite differently. While the black truffle is usually cooked (whether studding sausages or foie gras, or in slices under the skin of a roast chicken, called “demi-deuil”, of “half mourning”), the most common usage of the white is raw.
When shaved over a plate of hot risotto (or fettuccine, gnocchi, even roast chicken), the white truffles release an unmistakable and unparalleled aroma. Currently in season, white truffles can be found in some of the best Italian restaurants, shaved sparingly at tableside, often by the owner because they are so expensive, or by the gram weighed before and after they serve you. (Careful!)
This year, white truffles are retailing for $250 – $650/ounce.
White truffles usually come packed in Arborio rice, which will absorb flavors as they await being used. The most economical way to have a white truffle festival is to make your own pasta, splurge on a tiny white truffle and use a vegetable peeler to make paper thin slices, releasing the flavors and smells as you stand over the steaming plate.
Then there is truffle oil, sometimes made from the essence of real truffles, but more often from synthetic flavors, which is good reason to purchase from a top producer. A new “classic” is truffle oil on French fries, sometimes tossed with herbs. Now, those are empty calories worth having once in a while.