What are Truffles?

If you hear the word “truffle” and think of a delightful chocolate confection, you may be unaware that true truffles are actually highly prized, aromatic, and flavorful members of the fungus family. Truffles are tubers (resembling misshapen potatoes) that grow underground through symbiotic relationships with certain trees (such as the birch, beech, hornbeam, hazelnut, pine, and oak). Their unique flavor makes them highly sought after, and this, combined with their rarity, makes them quite expensive. Truffles are prized in Italian, Spanish, Greek, French, and Middle Eastern cooking.

Most truffles are from Europe, which is where the two most popular truffles are found. The famed black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) is associated with the Perigord region of southwest France, where approximately half of black truffles are found, although they can also be found in parts of Spain, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, and even in parts of the US. This truffle is found within the roots of oak trees. It is used in making pâté de foie gras and, since truffles must be used nearly immediately to retain their flavor, one of the most popular days for purchasing black truffles is December 24 so that they can be used to stuff Christmas birds. When cut, the black truffle reveals a burgundy interior.

The other popular truffle is the white truffle (Tuber magnatum), found primarily in the Piedmont region of Italy (near Alba) within the roots of oak, hazel, poplar, and beech trees. It is generally considered to be superior to the black truffle and is therefore more expensive. The exterior of this truffle is generally pale cream or brown with white marbling. In 2007, casino owner Stanley Ho set the record for paying the most for a single white truffle – £165,000 ($330,000) for a truffle that weighed 1.5 kg (3.3 lb). In 2010 he paid the same amount for a pair of white truffles. The white Alba truffle is only available from September through December and as of summer 2012, the delicacy was being sold for $1000 or more per pound in the US.

People are willing to pay such prices for truffles because they are incredibly unique in their flavor and aroma and they are becoming increasingly harder to find. They are difficult to cultivate and must be located with hogs or specially trained dogs. These characteristics increase their value and have earned them the nickname “diamonds of the kitchen.”