Commonly described as earthy with a pungent, musky aroma, truffles have been a culinary delicacy since the ancient Egyptians ate them covered in goose fat and the Greeks and Romans sought them out for their aphrodisiac properties. Today, truffles are among the most expensive natural ingredients in the world with both foodies and chefs waxing ecstatic over them. “The umami flavour that mushrooms usually have is heightened in truffles which make eating an overall sensory experience. It’s called the diamond of the kitchen which is no exaggeration.” says collaborative chef Romina Lugaresi of the Italian restaurant CinCin in Mumbai.
Truffles are a type of fungus that grows underground, they are sometimes foraged by specially trained dogs. White truffle is found around Alba in the Piedmont region of Italy, the black ones are also foraged in Spain and France.
Look Ma there’s a truffle in my dish!
The prohibitive cost of the natural fungi lends luxury and decadence to a menu, but that holds only when a chef uses them properly. Chef Lugaresi is partial to fresh Marche truffles from Le Marche, in Northern Italy for his handmade pasta. The light cream sauce with fresh shaved truffles makes that the dominant flavour of the dish. “We also use truffle caviar that is made from the black winter truffle juice, which is obtained directly from the cooking of the fresh truffle. The tasty juice is then reduced into small pearls through a very sophisticated technique called spherification,” says Lugaresi.
French cuisine restaurant Slink & Bardot in Mumbai serves a vegetable waffle topped with poached egg, truffle paste and smoked salmon. But the star dish here is the truffle mushroom forestiere with seven varieties of mushrooms stuffed in a filo pastry roll and served with reduced balsamic vinegar dressing and mixed leaves and pollen croutons for texture. Chef Kelvin Cheung uses both fresh truffles and truffle oil in his cooking. “I use them in egg dishes, handmade pasta, and then special dishes using seasonal ingredients like our sushi grade tuna over crispy rice at Bastian or the animal burgers and truffle popcorn man bun with truffle ice cream at One Street (both restaurants in Mumbai).”
The truth about truffle oil
All that glitters is not truffle. More often than not the unmistakable rich and umami-filled ingredient is truffle oil! Chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Martha Stewart or the late Anthony Bourdain hate the very sound of it. Bourdain had said, “Let it be stated here unto forever and eternity, truffle oil is not food.” And according to Gordon Ramsay, truffle oil is one of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to chefs. Here’s the reason: truffle oil does not contain any truffles but olive or sunflower oil with an added flavour that gives you a similar taste. At a fraction of the cost of fresh truffles (up to a whopping Rs 4 lakh a kilo), white truffle oil has quickly become the wonder ingredient for chefs who drizzle it over almost anything for an affordable cheat to gourmet food. While the original smells promising, the oil isn't (there is also real truffle oil flavoured with real truffles, but 95 percent of the stuff in the market is over-priced, chemical substitute).
The drawback, if any, is that truffle oil is strong and easily overpowers other tastes and aromas. “Most truffle oils are synthetic,” says Chef Gielbaum who claims to use frozen truffles and truffle oil in his dishes at Slink & Bardot. “You need to be careful as the line between hiding a bad dish with truffle flavour and emphasising the flavour of a good one is very thin. It can also end up over complicating a dish. A little bit of black truffle in a simple scrambled egg is my favourite.”
To overcome that overpowering taste of truffle with other strong flavours is a waste of good truffle, much like making sangria out of a 1990 Chateau Mouton Rothschild is a waste of good wine. “Truffle oil is very fragile so you want to use it as a finishing touch rather than in the actual cooking preparation. To appreciate it’s delicate taste, avoid overwhelming it with too many other strong flavours. Dishes that are naturally high in amino acids such as aged cheese, aged meats, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, eggs, etc. help to bring out the truffle flavour more,” explains chef Cheung. Neutral starches such as risotto, pasta, mashed potato and items such as pizzas and eggs allow the truffle to take centre stage.