I was interested in truffles because of their mystery and inaccessibility. Many years ago I had lunch at Cafe Boulud in Manhattan during restaurant week. Thinking that my three-course meal was going to be thirty dollars, I ordered the white truffle risotto. When it was served, the waiter kept shaving the fungus on my plate until my eyes grew wide at the extravagance. To say that I thoroughly enjoyed that lunch is an understatement. I was like the cat that swallowed the canary, having a great time until the bill was delivered, and my risotto had cost $103.00! Apparently, I should have read the menu more carefully. When I read in the book about suppliers mixing inferior Chinese truffles with bags of the highly prized French Tuber melanosporum, I wondered if what I was served was the real deal, or a Chinese fraud. Daniel Boulud is quoted in the book. “Right after Christmas I started getting some truffles that I thought were overripe at first… “they were very hard and had very little veining. They smelled of benzene and tasted like cardboard. Then I began hearing about the Chinese truffles.” It’s amazing how quickly shady characters infiltrate an up and coming market, finding a way to cheaply produce something that can be passed off, at least for a time, as a real luxury product. One of the fascinating things I learned was that at an auction in 2010, Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho bid $330,000 for 2 pieces of white truffle, the rarer, smoother-surfaced species with pale yellow-brown skin that can only be found in a few places on earth and cannot be cultivated. The average life cycle of a truffle-producing tree is 30 years, and green oaks are better at producing truffles than white oaks. Saboteurs who try to keep night truffle hunters away from their property will slash tires, smash windshields, blow up cars, and kill truffle dogs. That was the section of the book I couldn’t read, not being able to imagine or stomach a human who would kill a dog. As a result of the fraud and corruption in the industry, neither desert nor Chinese truffles can be legally sold for consumption in Italy.
THE BEAUTY: Photo from Langhe.net
The glorious white truffle of Alba, found in the Piedmont region of Italy. The most prized truffle is the guest of honor at the 89th annual International Alba White Truffle Fair, from October 5 to November 24, 2019. The market varies, but these beauties might sell for $4,000 per pound.
THE FOOD: Acknowledging that purchasing an actual truffle is not in the family budget, I moved on to finding a recipe that called for truffle oil.
MUSHROOM BARLEY SOUP WITH WHITE TRUFFLE Oil:
Yield: 4-6 Servings
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
1 medium onion, medium dice
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp dried thyme
2-3 small carrots, medium dice (~1 cup)
2-3 stalks celery, medium dice (~1 cup)
1 lb. (16 ounces) baby bella mushrooms, stems trimmed, halved and sliced
¼ C dry sherry
1 C par-cooked pearled barley
5 C chicken stock
leftover parmesan rinds (optional)
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp white truffle oil
freshly ground black pepper
Heat oil and butter in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions are soft and translucent.
Add garlic and continue cooking for an additional 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add dried thyme.
Add celery and carrot together and cook over medium-low heat for an additional 3-5 minutes.
Add sliced mushrooms, stir, and allow to cook over high heat for 5-7 minutes, or until mushrooms begin to release their liquid. Allow liquid to evaporate before adding dry sherry.
Reduce sherry until barely any liquid is left in the pot. Add the pearled barley, parmesan rinds, and chicken stock and bring to a low boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for another 15-20 minutes or until barley is cooked through.
Season soup with salt and pepper to taste. Finish by stirring in truffle oil and lemon juice. Serve piping hot.
This was good, but probably would have been better without the white truffle oil. In the list of ingredients was “truffle flavor,” which turns out to be no truffle at all. Most truffle oils are made with the chemical 2,4-dithiapentane. So, after we ate this for dinner, I threw away the rest of the bottle, still yearning for the real flavor of truffles. Good news! Urbani makes both black and white truffle oil with real truffles, 3.4 ounces for $19.97 online.