The price of truffles -- always amazing -- has reached dizzying heights this winter because of troublesome weather in Europe. The treasured Italian white truffles of Alba are going for as much as $225 an ounce at retail. French black truffles aren’t that far behind -- about $150 an ounce.
Or you can go to the farmers market and get white truffles for $15 an ounce. And there are quite nice black ones at a local grocery for as little as $4 an ounce.
How can this be? Well, in the first place, we’re really talking apples and oranges here ... or at least apples and crabapples.
The white truffles David West is selling at the Clearwater Farms stand at the Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers markets come from Oregon, not Alba. And though they resemble the real thing in many ways, they certainly wouldn’t fool a connoisseur.
Domestic white truffles, which are harvested from Northern California up into Washington state, belong to a different species than the Italian ones. (Instead of Tuber magnatum, they are usually Tuber gibbosum, though a couple of other look-alikes are sometimes thrown in.)
And though their pronounced perfume is reminiscent of the Italian truffles, it is distinctly different, with a marked sharpness. “They always have a distinct piney/resiny scent, presumably from being found under fir trees,” says Matt Kramer, a Portland, Ore., resident who is also the author of “A Passion for Piedmont,” the definitive food and wine book on the Alba area.
“They’re acceptable, but little more than that,” he says.
Yes, but an acceptable truffle at around one-tenth the price? How bad can that be? Not bad at all, it turns out.
One food-savvy friend picked up a golf ball-sized 1-ounce specimen at the market over the holidays and shaved most of it over two plates of fresh egg noodles dressed in warm cream and butter. Though these truffles lacked the pungency and grandeur of the ones from Alba, they did have an appeal all their own.
“We could actually have as much white truffle as we wanted, and I’ve never had that happen before,” my friend says. “There was a real glee to shaving as much as you wanted. It felt bounteous and luxurious.”
These white truffles need to be bought carefully. Unlike Italy, where the raising of dogs trained for finding truffles is regarded almost as a traditional art form, in the U.S. many truffle hunters take a shortcut: Since truffles tend to grow in the same places year after year, some hunters merely go back and deep-rake spots where they’ve found them before.
This not only harvests truffles that may be immature, it can destroy the root system that creates the truffles in the first place. Dogs have the advantage of relying on smell, which is only created by ripe truffles.
So think like a dog when buying domestic truffles: The perfume should be pungent, the texture should be firm and the color should be a ripe golden.
The bargain black truffles sold at Whole Foods’ groceries are also off-brand. Instead of the famous French truffles from the Perigord or the Luberon mountains in Provence, these come from China (rather than Tuber melanosporum, they are Tuber sensiese or indicum).
But if anything, these are even closer to the originals in smell and taste than the domestic white truffles are. Though they are slightly less penetrating than the best French truffles, their perfume is full and round. They could easily be mistaken for lesser examples of their French cousins.
Indeed, when I opened a container of them in the office, people were commenting several desks away and more than 10 minutes later. The perfume was so convincing that I couldn’t wait to get them home. There, I made a couple of open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches with close-grained white bread and good Gruyere. I broiled them until the cheese bubbled and barely browned at the edges, and then I grated half of one of the truffles over the top. The result was pretty astonishing, especially since three of the truffles (each measuring 1 1/4 inches in diameter) cost just over $6 -- that comes to less than $1 per generous serving. Talk about affordable luxuries.
As with any such ingredient, truffles should be used carefully. White truffles, in particular, are so shockingly perfumed that they should be used only with the plainest of dishes. The classic Piemontese preparation is a simple risotto made with chicken stock and bathed with melted Fontina cheese (risotto con fonduta e tartuffo bianco). They are also shaved over buttered tajarin -- the local yolk-rich egg noodle.
I especially love white truffles with scrambled eggs. Make them the good, rich way -- beat the eggs lightly and cook them over medium heat in a little butter. Just when they’re about ready to set, vigorously beat in a couple of tablespoons of cold butter. This will make them nice and creamy. Serve them on hot plates while they’re still moist and fairly loose and shave or grate white truffles over the top just before they go to the table.
And I can’t imagine anything more delicious than white truffles grated over a creamy cauliflower soup. Simmer the broken-up florets of a head of cauliflower in chicken stock with a chopped leek and a diced boiling potato. When everything is soft enough to smash between your fingers, puree it in a blender. Add just enough stock to thin it to the desired texture and whisk in a little creme fraiche or sour cream just at the end.
The flavor of black truffles is more complementary than flamboyant. They don’t stand out front and proclaim themselves as white truffles do. Rather, they add a sense of depth and deliciousness to dishes. While white truffles are best used as garnishes -- added to hot, already cooked foods -- black truffles are used as ingredients.
Classical uses include slipping thin slices under the skin of a chicken before roasting (you can also beat grated truffles into soft butter and smear that between the skin and the meat), folding them between the layers of a potato gratin, or embedding them in a terrine of foie gras.
Of course they’re delicious with mushrooms -- try scattering thin shavings over a rich mushroom soup. I like to fold any leftover scrapings into mayonnaise to make the most incredibly luxurious potato salad you can imagine. And when I used them in scrambled eggs, I had a hard time believing that white truffles would have been any better.
Use truffles carefully, but don’t use them stingily. Since these are bargain truffles, you can shave them with reckless abandon. Be spendthrift with your pleasures. At this price, you can afford to.
Because truffles are foraged ingredients, gathered in the wild, their availability is highly variable. David West and Clearwater Farms sell at the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica and Sunday Hollywood farmers markets. There are many Whole Foods stores throughout the area.