All about truffles

Learn more about these coveted culinary delights, and find out how to incorporate truffles into your own cooking.

By Kat Tancock

What's a truffle?
Photography by Kat Tancock
I'm sitting at a table at Konoba Mondo, a renowned restaurant in the medieval hilltop town of Motovun, Croatia, that specializes in dishes made with local truffles. A white-gloved waiter sets down a serving dish of two pasta dishes and a red wine and radicchio risotto, then pulls out a white truffle a little under an inch in diameter and proceeds to shave slices of it across the plate.

I watch with anticipation, inhaling the earthy aroma, then eagerly serve myself as the proprietor, Klaudio Ivašić, shares the philosophy of his establishment, rooted in local ingredients, but with flair and technique brought in by the chef, his brother-in-law, who hails from Sicily.

I take a bite and close my eyes to fully experience the flavour. Truth? This might be the best meal I've ever had – and there's still a white truffle panna cotta with honey to enjoy. As I savour every mouthful, I'm pondering the eternal question asked by food-loving travellers: Can I recreate this at home? Or is the perfection of this meal as much due to time and place as it is to the ingredients that were used?

What is a truffle, anyway?
Put simply, a truffle is a fungus, made slightly sexier than plain old mushrooms because it is formed underground. Evocative of rural Frenchmen in berets following pigs through oak forests as they scent out these valuable gems, truffles include hundreds of species, some of which are highly valued as gourmet foods. Harvested in the wild across Europe, where the culture of eating truffles originated, a few varieties can and are being cultivated both there and in places abroad such as Oregon and Australia.

Truffles emit a strong odour when they are ripe, which is what those famed pigs are naturally attracted to and what dogs, nowadays, are trained to seek out (mostly because they're easier to handle than a full-grown pig who wants a bite of the sweet fungus). And it's the scent of the truffles – more than the flavour – that makes them attractive to people, too. This is what makes truffles such an ephemeral crop, as they lose their scent rather quickly and are best eaten fresh, which is the reason a meal containing fresh European truffles costs so much in North America.

Truffles are a big moneymaker or those who know how to seek them out and market them. The Croatian region of Istria alone, among the lesser known truffle-growing regions, produces seven or eight tonnes of truffles a year: 30 per cent the more common black truffle, which grows all year round; and 70 per cent the seasonal white truffle, which can be found from September to December and fetches much higher prices.

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