Truffles are exotic, prized and coveted, synonymous with luxury and all fine things, but it’s the very few and in the know who can answer the question: what are truffles?
A truffle is, in the simplest terms, a fungus or mushroom of the genus Tuber. It grows underground, typically near or right beneath the roots of trees, particularly oak, beech, birch, poplars and pine trees. They form a symbiotic relationship – meaning the tree and the truffles both get something out of the relationship, sugars and nutrients.
Intensely aromatic, truffles add a unique and unmatched aroma and flavor to a dish, which is why they’re so coveted in cooking. The most prized truffles, the Tuber melanosporum or the winter black truffle, and the tuber magnatum or the white truffle from Alba, are found in France and Italy. The coveted Italian winter white truffle grows only in the Alba and Piedmont regions, while the black truffle is found both in France (near Perigord, which is why the black truffle is also known as the Perigord truffle) and Italy, but also across Western Europe. The winter variety of all truffles are the most intense, while the summer truffle, a different species altogether, is milder with a lesser aroma.
Truffles are also found in Australia, and South America, where they’ve been successfully cultivated and harvested. Truffle cultivation is rare, but not impossible.
Truffles are “hunted” with specially trained dogs, which have supplanted the truffle pigs of yore (one of the reasons being that pigs love their truffles a bit too much, and tend to eat them before they can be grabbed). Because the mushrooms grow so deep in the ground, almost a foot sometimes, they’re incredibly hard to find, and it’s only thanks to the very sensitive noses of these animals that they’re found at all. Truffles tend to grow always in the same spots, which are fiercely guarded by the truffle hunters.