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The Trouble With Truffles

When I hear someone talking about truffles, it takes me a second or two to figure out which kind they are referring to: the confection or the fungus. This can cause trouble because, although the words are the same, their meanings are not at all interchangeable. The word truffle derives from the Latin word tuber, meaning swelling or lump, which later became tufer and eventually evolved to the current term in French, truffe.

The black truffle, referred to as l’or noir (black gold), are actually tuber melanosporum, a fungus that are harvested at the base of oak trees in winter and summer. Truffle production depends on just the right combination of soil pH, precipitation, and sunlight for a warm, dry environment and therefore, is rare. This makes them a highly prized and priced delicacy, commanding from $250 to $450 per pound.Last summer I saw prices at 120 Euros for 100 grams. Summer harvested truffles are less flavorful, and therefore, are a little less expensive than in winter – Christmas demand can elevate the price from 500 to 1000 Euros per kilo (1 kil0 = 2.2 lbs.).

Truffles are hunted and harvested with pigs or trained dogs that able to detect the mature truffles strong odor from underneath the ground at the base of the oak trees. The odor is similar to a pig’s sexual pheromone, making their reaction a telltale sign – the trouble is trying to prevent the pig from eating the truffle. A truffle dog, however, will eagerly exchange finding a truffle for a dog treat, so is less trouble to harvest the treasured truffle. Some truffle hunters watch for flies hovering around the base of the oak tree, as a sign of a potential harvest. An odorous truffle equals a flavorful truffle, as natural chemicals needed for the odor to develop created by the release of mature spores. Their odor is the only proven way to know when they are ready to be harvested, by animals with a keen sense of smell.

At a local truffle festival, I wanted to know if they really smell like what I had heard – odor of dirty, sweaty feet. Sure enough there were tables galore with vendors selling their black gold, so I asked one vendor if I could smell one of her truffles. I was very surprised that it didn’t really smell much at all (and certainly not like dirty socks). I ordered an omelette with truffles for lunch, and wow – the taste of the grated truffle was indeed pungent! I learned that truffles complement many simple dishes, so one can appreciate its rich taste: well-known in omelettes, but can also be used as a topping on pizza or as an oil.

To quote Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers: “Food lovers in every century have never been able to say the name of the truffle without tipping their hat.”
Truffles were also enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans; however, during the Middle Ages, truffles were linked to witchcraft and were also considered to be aphrodisiacs – a taboo, until the Catholic Church in established in Avignon, the heart of truffle territory.

After my own taste test, but mainly due to the trouble of availability and pricing, my personal choice of truffle is the confectionary kind, made with luscious, dark chocolate. Chocolate truffles usually have a ganache-cream center and are rolled in cocoa or nut powder – a decidedly delicious treat.

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The origin of the chocolate truffle is also troubling. Reportedly, the chocolate truffle is believed to have been created by N. Petruccelli in Chambéry in December, 1895. The establishment of the “Prestat” chocolate shop in London, by Antoine Dufour in 1902, created a larger audience for this delectable candy. The shop still sells “Napoleon III” artisan truffles from the original recipe. However, another legend has it that the chocolate truffle was created in the kitchen of French culinary chef, Auguste Escoffier, during the 1920s, after his apprentice accidentally poured hot cream into a bowl of chocolate chunks. He discovered he could work the chocolate paste with his hands to form a lumpy ball; after rolling them in cocoa powder, they resembled black truffles found in the French Périgord region.

So, what’s the trouble with truffles? On one hand, it’s discovering them, and on the other hand, controlling the urge for these delectable delices – Voila!

by Kim inFrance blogger Kim Defforge.

Kim is a lifelong Francophile, and former French teacher. Having moved from the U.S. to the French Riviera, she enjoys writing about France and French culture on her blog, 24/7 in France. From the simple beauty of a Mediterranean sunset to her passion for all things French, Kim shows us that dreams can come true!

Kim Defforge is the author of "Solitary Desire: One Woman's Journey to France" and "Sun, Sea & Savoir-Faire: Travel Focus on the French Riviera".

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