The taste test and synthetic ‘truffle oil’
You’ll most likely meet our fresh black truffles when dining so what do they taste like? Well, they retain some of their earthy origins. When freshly dug up some people smell that element like in beetroot. There’s certainly mushroom overtones but truffles are unique. Sex and old socks was the classic description which we guess is a mix of pheremones that make female pigs attracted to them (and easy to train finding them) and the sweaty socks which is that earthiness. It doesn’t help much because you can’t compare it to just one thing. Some truffles have a kerosene nose that chefs like, others hate. Sexy? Yes and they were even considered an aphrodisiac.
We can define exactly what the mix of chemicals is that give them their odour and one of them can be manufactured synthetically, a thioether called (2,4-dithiapentane). Manufactured cheaply in bulk it is then added to an oil, like grape seed or mild olive oil and sold as ‘genuine’ truffle oil at an exorbitant mark-up. Sometimes they throw in a bit of sterilised truffle so the label can claim it contains ‘genuine black or white truffle’. If the label says ‘contains aroma’ you know it has the chemical in it. While it is a strong flavour when used in cooking, it has nothing to do with the multi-layered complexity that a real truffle brings to a dish. Some people are even allergic to it.
And it doesn’t have the major attraction of all the truffles in containing glutamates, the natural flavour enhancers that appear in garlic, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, potatoes and mushrooms.
Truffle has a natural affinity with fats, so milk, butter, cream and eggs carry it’s flavours and odours (which is a big part of what we call taste). If it is used shaved in slices or grated over a warm dish such as pasta or risotto, the heat releases that unique smell and prepares you for eating it. White truffle is considered so refined that the idea of cooking it and driving off the scent means it is almost always shaved at the table, or made into a fresh paste.
Black truffle is a little more robust and can be blended with foie gras and cream to make the classic Perigord Sauce, it can be inserted under the skin of chicken before baking in a dish called ‘widow’s chicken’. But just shaving or grating on top of dishes as diverse as pizza and salad also see it shine.
How much should you use? Unfortunately lots of people go away from a first truffle meal with a ho-um feeling. The restaurant has to use enough so that you know you’ve enjoyed truffle while keeping an eye on their budget. We think an entree should have about 5 grams per serve (at $2 a gram that’s adding $10 to the dish without markup) and up to 10 grams for a large main course. Dishes such as truffled ice-cream need to use as much as the mixture requires but as it is usually (stored with) infused into the eggs or cream for a few days before, they have their flavour and truffle to shave as well.
Once you get the taste, it is a seasonal addiction and you bemoan that you didn’t have one more truffle dish before they were gone.