Better than chocolate

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MW White Truffle Yaki Musubi. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

I know everyone loves chocolate truffles ­— a creamy, chocolate ganache covered with more chocolate and then rolled in cocoa powder. It’s like a chocolate cubed delight for all chocolate lovers.

However, my favorite truffle is the natural namesake of that chocolatey delight, all species of that subterranean, ascomycete fungus, the true truffle.

What’s a Truffle?
Though there are several species of truffles used in the culinary world, the three primary species are Tuber melanosporum or the black Perigord truffle, Tuber aestivum or the black summer truffle found throughout Europe and Tuber magnatum or the white truffle found in the Piedmont region of Italy. Truffles are always associated with root systems of a host of trees, including hazel, oak, birch and beech in a symbiotic relationship. The truffles provide micronutrients for the tree, which in turn provides carbohydrates for the truffle. In the wild, truffles are usually harvested between autumn and winter with the assistance of our porcine and canine companions. Pigs can find truffles without any training (I’ve read that supposedly the truffle aroma mimics a sow in heat) but they will dig up the bounty and consume it so truffle hunters must share some of the bounty with their pig or it will stop sniffing out these delicacies. Dogs need to be trained to sniff out truffles, but once they find them, only need to be rewarded with a Milk-Bone. Since the harvest season is so short and because the bounty can fetch a pretty penny (upwards of $7,000 per pound), truffle hunters carefully guard their favorite foraging locations.

$7,000 Per Pound?
Are truffles worth it? I’ve sampled all three of the most common truffle varieties and I’ll still shell out the dinero needed for a truffle enhanced dish — retired and all if it’s those luscious white truffles from Piedmont. For starters, white truffles are primarily served as is without any cooking.

They are simply shaved thinly over the dish and have this intense mushroomy, garlic, shallot aroma. The intensity is not unlike that intense aroma you get with gasoline, but with the smell of mushroom, garlic and shallot. Black truffles, especially the Perigord truffles, are usually cooked into the dish, though I have had black summer truffles thinly shaved to finish the dish in the manner of white truffles. Perigord truffles don’t have the same intensity as white truffles but they do have the perfume of the best mushrooms you’ve ever sampled.

My First Experience
My first experience wasn’t with the real McCoy at all. Rather, it was with truffle oil, which is basically olive oil infused with one of the predominant compounds that give truffles their characteristic aroma or 2,6 dithiapentane. Sometimes manufacturers add bits of actual dried truffle so they can label the olive oil as actually containing “real truffle,” but these bits are usually from lesser Tuber species. And though the food celebrity that I have the utmost respect for — Anthony Bourdain — stated that truffle oil should be banned since it’s primarily from a laboratory, I disagree as it allows the general public to sample something that is out of their financial reach.

Therefore, I still always have a bottle of truffle oil in my refrigerator — yes, any truffle or 2,6 dithiapentane-infused food, whether it’s oil, salt, powder or paste should be refrigerated as 2,6 dithiapentane is very volatile, so any opened container will eventually lose that truffle aroma, which refrigeration preserves for a longer period of time.

The Real McCoy
Though it’s been almost 20 years since that original experience, I still vividly remember our only meal at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Initially, it was simply because we secured a table on our 10th anniversary, which is almost like winning the lottery. Back then, you had to call exactly 60 days before your desired date, starting at noon Hawai‘i time. Ms. S used the landline while I was on my cellphone 60 days before our first evening in Yountville. We both constantly got the busy signal, then after about 40 minutes, a prerecorded message stated that all tables were booked for the day. On the second day, the same occurred, though we were placed on a waitlist after about 30 minutes. On the third day, we did the same at noon and after about 10 minutes, Ms. S received a message to hold the line and surprisingly we secured our table on our 10th anniversary no less!

If you’ve never been to The French Laundry, they serve a prix fixe multi-course menu, though there are several supplements for an added fee. When we were there, we both ordered the truffle risotto. When the risotto was served, a second server presented what appeared to be a cigar humidor, but as he opened it, the intense aroma of white truffle filled the dining area. He then proceeded to shave that white truffle over the risotto like there was no tomorrow. I almost wanted to tell him to save some truffle for other diners. Almost, but I didn’t want to interfere with his truffle shaving duties.

Bernini Fonduta, Truffle. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Since then, we had a truffle-themed dinner back in the 50th at Bernini Honolulu as well as Poggio Trattoria in Sausalito, Calif. — they still offer annual white truffle-themed dinners every year that start in late October to November for about one week. Other than the prix fixe truffle-themed dinner for a single evening, Poggio also offers shaved fresh white truffles on select dishes (back in 2019, it was a $45 supplement for 5 gm of white truffle). If we lived in the Bay Area, I would be on the Internet daily from mid-September just to make sure we could secure a table for these annual white truffle dinners.

‘Truffles’ on a Budget
As I mentioned, I always have a variety of truffle salt, olive oil, powder and paste in my refrigerator, but that doesn’t stop me from indulging in other truffled products. For starters, Torres makes a great truffle potato chip — I’ve tried other brands, including Trader Joe’s, Kettle and Lays, but none have the perfume of the Torres brand. And whenever any restaurant offers truffled fries, we’re there! And we’ve tried many truffle infused cheeses — many infused with Perigord black truffles — but our favorite is Boschetto al Tartuffo, which combines the creaminess of a fresh mozzarella with pronounced truffle flavor and aroma and makes a great truffled grilled cheese when combined with truffled olive oil and truffle butter. Simply spread the truffle butter on one side of white bread — preferably Japanese style shokupan milk bread — then drizzle the non- buttered side with truffle oil and place slices of the Boschetto al Tartuffo cheese on the oiled side. Griddle both buttered sides until golden brown and slice into eight pieces. Serve with an aged chardonnay or Champagne!

If you like egg salad, you can create your own amped up version with truffle salt and truffle powder — my personal favorites are the Sabatino Tartufi products that I also use in scrambled eggs. And if you want to impress someone with a simple bowl of saimin, try my take on Sansei Restaurant’s truffled crab ramen. Just heat canned snow crab with truffle butter and roughly chop green onions and cilantro. Once you place the saimin and broth in the serving bowl, place a dollop of the truffle butter-infused crab in the middle of the bowl, sprinkle the chopped greens around the crab and finally drizzle with truffled olive oil. The aroma of the butter, crab and truffle will elevate that bowl of saimin from late night snack to three-star Michelin level.

Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a recently retired clinical pharmacist and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster. He writes from Kane’ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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