Friday 18 May 2018

Practical Guide to Truffles (Book Review)

I don't know much about truffles. I've eaten some dishes containing truffles, but that's about it. However I've always been a bit curious about them, given all the fuss that people make, and recently I had the opportunity to learn a bit more.

On a recent trip to the South West of France, I chanced upon this slim volume in the gift shop of the Chateau of Monbazillac. It is well-written, informative and unpretentious, and I strongly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about truffles It's definitely worth reading if you are planning to spend your money on them.

A few interesting things which I have learnt:

There are several species of truffles, of which only two are of gastronomic interest: the black Périgord  truffle (Tuber melanosporum), and the white Alba truffle (Tuber magnatum).

Other species are either not very interesting, i.e. not very aromatic, or even unpleasant. This is worth knowing as an ill-informed buyer could end up paying a lot of money for something of no value.

Black and white truffles are quite different in the way they should be prepared.

Black truffles may be fresh, or preserved. Fresh truffles do not last for long: not more than a week when carefully packed stored in a refrigerator. So if you have spent a wad of cash on your fresh truffle (hopefully Tuber melanosporum and not one of the inferior or nasty varieties), you should prepare it and eat it immediately. Preserved truffles, it should be noted, are in no way inferior, merely different. The book describes the dishes for which each type is most appropriate.

It has become fashionable to shave raw truffles over food, but this practice, I have now learnt, is only appropriate for the white Alba truffle, because the black Tuber melanosporum only releases its aroma at 40C, so shaving a raw black truffles over your pasta is a complete waste. The Alba truffle, on the other hand, does not stand up to cooking, and should only be consumed raw, as a condiment, so if you have one of those, shave away.

As for truffle oil, this is neutral vegetable oil to which synthetic truffle aroma has been added. The ingredient was discovered in the 1980s in the course of biological research into truffles, and is identical to its 'natural' counterpart, in that it is exactly the same chemical. If you see something in your bottle of truffle oil that looks like a piece of truffle, it's just there as an ornament, or to mislead the customer, and does not contribute to the flavour or aroma. It might even shorted the shelf life of the oil if it degrades more rapidly. For more information on truffle oil, there's an interesting article in Wikipedia.

There's lots more in the book about the history, biology, selection, purchase, preservation, preparation and cooking of truffles, all written in an easy-to-read and engaging style. I now appreciate that its worth learning a bit about them before seeking them out in order to avoid disappointment. This book concerns itself almost exclusively with Tuber melanosporum, so I think that anyone wanting to go into the Italian Alba truffles should probably look for a similar sort of book on the topic.

Practical Guide to Truffles - Truffle is a simple product
Pierre-Jean & Babeth Pébeyre, Sophie Brissaud
Féret . Published 21/03/2014

New edition (in French)
Manuel de la truffe, nouvelle édition - La truffe est un produit simple
Auteur : Pierre-Jean et Babeth Pébeyre, Sophie Brissaud
Date de publication : 15/11/2016