I do not plan to ever run for public office, so I’m willing to confess that during a much younger, more foolish time in my life I tried on one occasion a particular mood-altering illegal substance which is not uncommon among 25 year-old ne’er-do-wells (like I was) living in New York’s East Village.
This was all a good many years ago, but I hazily recall that the stuff in question was elusive, sold in tiny amounts for large sums, dangerously addictive, and enjoyed primarily via the nose.
Pretty much identical, in other words, to buying and consuming a White Truffle. Minus, of course, the risk of imprisonment and catastrophic health implications. If you’ve never seen a white truffle, it’s that thing in the photo above resembling a dirty, knobbly pebble. (It is positioned there to infuse the surrounding eggs with its exquisite scent.)
White truffles are known to botanists as Tuber Magnatum, and known to my wife as “What In God’s Name Do You Mean You Just Spent $360 On A Lump of Fungus, You Moron?” Actually she didn’t say that, but it would be understandable if she did. At $200 per ounce, white truffles are buttock-clenchingly expensive. This is due to the medieval manner in which they are harvested which means that supply can never hope to approach demand. Impossible to cultivate, they are foraged by hand between October and December in small geographical pockets, most famously in the countryside around the Italian city of Alba. Truffles hunters historically brought along pigs to help find their prize, but nowadays dogs are more commonly used. A truffle sniffing hound can be trained not to gobble the truffle, whereas a pig is much more likely to do so.
Like other precious gastronomic artifacts such as Russian Caviar or Château Pétrus, white truffles have come to attract the attention of the insanely rich and vulgar who like to acquire the biggest ones as trophies. In 2007, a casino owner from Macau, Stanley Ho, paid $330,000 for a 1.5 kilogram specimen. When I learned this I felt momentarily better about the piffling $360 specimen I acquired. But only momentarily.
What would possess anyone pay to such grotesques sum for a tuber? Well there’s the rarity, of course, but rarity is nothing without the taste. Or in the case of truffles, which actually taste of very little, the aroma. The usual preparation for a truffle is to shave it over, say, pasta or eggs or risotto with a special device such as this one. It will create very fine slices, diaphanous in their thinness, which then exhale a heavenly fragrance upon contact with the heat of the food beneath.
So peculiar and unique is the smell that unless you have inhaled the scent of truffle yourself, or until the Internet is enhanced with Smell-O-Vision, it’s not worth my spending too much creative energy on trying to recreate it for you in words. It’s a kind of earthy, musky, sexual scent. The best metaphor I heard a long time ago was that the smell of white truffles is akin to ‘fresh sheets immediately after a long bout of sex.’
I remember my first taste of white truffle very distinctly. I was ten or eleven years old, and one day I was rooting around in our kitchen cabinet looking for a lunchtime snack. Hidden in the thicket of canned sardines and jars of sauce I discovered a handful of diminutive, curious looking tins. The tiny, embossed labels were covered in solemn Italian script, which I, even as an ignorant little nose-picker, could tell meant something special .
I asked my father what they were. He told me, in a rather disinterested tone, that they were white truffles sent as a gift by his aunt Azelma, an old fossil living out her years in Florence (the city of my dad’s birth.)
My father is fearsome eater. He will gleefully devour almost anything edible which is placed before him. He is fond of calves brains, eels and head cheese. But in one of those singular mysteries which prove the infinite contradictions of the human condition, he’s strangely unenthusiastic about truffles.
Whip up some scrambled eggs, he said, and we’ll crack open a tin of truffles and stir them in for lunch. So we did. And I thought it was jolly tasty. He saw how much I liked them, and in an act of characteristic generosity he gave me his portion too.
Each tiny tin was probably about an ounce, which at today’s prices made those scrambled eggs worth about $200. Not bad for a ten year old as a mid-afternoon snack. Over the course of the next few weeks I ate the remaining two or three tins with scrambled eggs. My parents didn’t seem to notice, or if they did they didn’t care.
Fast forward to today, and if my son ate my truffles I would care very much indeed. As mentioned earlier, I just bought a truffle for $360. But before you consider me grossly overpaid and ostentatious myself, the specimen pictured here was split between me and five others. One early Sunday morning, my friend Jeremy and I were watching with bleary eyes our respective toddlers rampaging through our local playground when we agreed that we deserved a treat. So we decided to co-invest in a white truffle.
And last Friday, six of us sat down at my dining table to gorge ourselves, Nero-like, on dishes designed to display the singular seductions of Tuber Magnatum. I decided the approach should be to keep the dishes simple to show off the white truffle scent without interference from other flavours. So we had my Posh Mushrooms On Toast with white truffle shavings, and a white truffle risotto, the recipe for which is below.
These dishes would have otherwise cost hundreds of dollars each in a swanky restaurant, so the sixty bucks we each pitched in ended up being good value. I thought the results were pretty intoxicating, and I hope my guests agree. (Hats off to Jeremy for a particularly well judged wine pairing: a couple of lightish Italian reds from the Alto Adige region which worked perfectly with the white truffle rather than against it.)
White Truffle Risotto
- A basic white wine risotto (the recipe for which I need not rehash when many excellent versions can be found here or here or here. )
- A white truffle.
- Make the risotto.
- Serve to your guests not too hot, and with a truffle shaver, slice very thin slices of white truffle over the ristotto.
- Gonads on toast.
- Cockroach Of The Sea.
- Caesar Salad: the taste of loneliness.
- Arrivederci Nonna.
- In defense of the Happy Meal.
- Fish Soup, and why the French are annoying.
- Baking turns me into Woody Allen.
- Tuber Magnatum: worth selling a kidney for?
- Off-piste Italian.
- The silliest meal of my life (followed by a good mushroom recipe)
- Summer’s nearly over. Thank God.
- Prozac, Xanax, Chicken Tikka Masala.