What is a Truffle? Digging into the World’s Most Coveted Fungus

Let’s talk about truffles. And we don’t mean chocolate truffles, though we could go on about that kind too.  

We’re referring to the prized, savory edible fungus. You may have seen truffle-flecked pasta, truffle fries, and truffle oil, but having a dish topped with shavings of these fresh tubers is a completely different experience. 

If it sounds confusing that’s because it is. So we’re answering the most common questions, like, Where do truffles grow? How are truffles found? And, why are truffles so expensive? 

But before we get into why they’re such a premium ingredient, and the best ways to enjoy them (spoiler: fresh), let’s dig into their rise to culinary fame beginning with ancient civilizations. 

Truffles on a table at a truffle fair in Piedmont

A Brief History of Truffles 

Understanding why truffles are such an ‘It’ ingredient requires going back in time.

It’s believed the Romans learned about them from the Etruscans—an ancient people who inhabited modern-day Italy and whose cultural practices the Romans often co-opted—and even shipped truffles from Egypt and Libya. History also mentions that both the ancient Greeks and the Amorite people of northern Syria ate truffles. 

Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder is credited with recording the first mention of the fungus and they were exchanged amongst nobles as gifts during the Middle Ages. 

They rose to global recognition in the 20th century when hotelier Giacomo Morra, whose company Tartufi Morra is widely cited as one of the first to sell Italy’s famous white Alba truffles (more on that below), began gifting them to influencers of the time — including President Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. 

By the end of the century the fungus were a prized ingredient. 

So, Is A Truffle A Mushroom?

What exactly is a truffle, you ask? Like a mushroom, it is an edible fungi that's part of the tuber genus. But it's technically not a mushroom. You see a mushroom can grow year round and is the harvested part is always located above ground. On the other hand, a truffle grows underground attached to tree roots, has a short harvesting season, a short shelf-life, and is nearly impossible to cultivate. 

White Truffles Versus Black Truffles 

There are different varieties of truffles around the world—they grow in Spain, the U.K, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and the Pacific Northwest in the U.S.—but it's widely agreed that the best come from Europe. Italy’s and France's are considered the best with the Italian white and French black ones being the most coveted. 

The famous white truffle hails from the town of Alba in Italy’s Piedmont region and are referred to as Alba truffles or Tartufi di Alba. 

One surprising tidbit in their rise to “It” status is that in the 1960s enterprising truffle hunters from Italy brought back white truffles from Croatia. The locals thought they were bad potatoes until someone unearthed a giant truffle in 1999.

On the other hand black truffles from France and most pop up throughout its Southwestern parts such as the Périgord region.  

In terms of flavor, while both white and black truffles have an earthy, complex aroma, white truffles tend to smell and taste ‘louder’ than their black counterparts.   

Truffle hunting dogs in the forest

Why Truffles Are So Trendy (And Expensive!)

Like an aged bottle of wine from a prized vintage, truffles are so in demand in the culinary world that they can sell for up to $2,500 a pound. 

In fact some shady purveyors have been caught attempting to pass off truffles grown outside of Italy and France as European truffles

How Are Truffles Found

Speaking of, there are several reasons why truffles from Italy and France command top dollar. 

For starters, they require super specific growing conditions. As in, truffles need seven to 10 years to grow underground and they prefer a Mediterranean climate.  

Also, they tend to grown only on the roots of certain trees; namely, oak, beech, poplar, and hazelnut trees. 

When Is Truffle Season 

Now take all of that specificity and add a short harvesting season. White truffle season happens between September and December, while black truffles are harvested from December to February or March.  

Here’s where things get a bit (more!) complicated: finding them once they’re ready for harvest.  

To detect a truffle’s distinct scent, trained dogs are used. Pigs were used previously but they tended to destroy the land and eat the precious ingredients. As such pigs were banned for truffle hunting in Italy in 1985. 

Once they’re harvested, the countdown is on because truffles lose their complex aroma and flavor in seven to 10 days. And, since the most desired truffles come from Italy and France, if they’re being exported abroad, all that travel time means an even shorter shelf life.  

Bottom line is that the lengthy growing period and high perishability plus high demand (and environmental factors and unsustainable farming) equals multiple dollar signs. 

White truffle pasta

A Note on Fake Truffles 

If you aren’t eating fresh truffles you are likely eating a fake product, and we mean that in the least-snobbish way. 

You see most of the truffle products sold on shelves and online, such as oils, butters, and salts are made with artificial truffle flavoring that’s been created to mimic its smell and taste. But it's largely unsuccessful as the truffles’ real deal smell and taste is incredibly layered.  

To suss out real truffles in shelf-stable products, look at the label and shop a trusted vendor. Oftentimes products are made with a combo of “natural flavors” (meaning engineered) and real truffles. Retailers who carefully vet the quality of the products they sell, like Eataly—which also sells fresh truffles—can help ensure you’re getting the real thing.

How To Use Truffles 

Chefs and foodies alike agree that the best way to enjoy the delicacies that are truffles are shaved fresh over simple dishes like scrambled eggs, risottos, with cream sauce atop a steak, or on fresh pasta with butter. 

Generally speaking, since the fungus has a particular flavor it’s better to let it shine and avoid ingredients and preparations that will overpower or mute its flavor.  

With all of this eye-opening info, consider yourself armed with enough truffle knowledge to help you confidently order it on the menu when it’s in season or choose a quality truffle-inspired product year-round.


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Photo Credit: Black truffle in basket by Sofia Royo; truffle dog hunting by Sasa Dzambic Photography; white truffles at the truffle fair in Piedmont by Alessandro Cristiano; and white truffle pasta by HQuality

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