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The elusive mushrooms command a high price

Say the word truffle, and most will think of the delicious chocolate confection, decadent rounds, often dusted with cocoa powder, and calories galore.

But think again. Think of something much less attractive. In fact, think of downright ugly. White truffle mushrooms, of the fungus variety, are warty and gnarly and not much to look at. But they have a huge reputation and a price tag to match.

Truffles have been romancing us for centuries. Ancient Roman cuisine used a variety of spices and flavors, and the truffle was a perfect addition to their repertoire of tastes.

Truffles first found their fame in Italy and France, where they seem to have the best luck growing. They are a funny lot and are resistant to cultivation, hence there are never enough to go around. (Although the state of Oregon has had some success in cultivating the temperamental fungi.)

The delicacies have a symbiotic relationship with their host trees, often oaks. They love sweet limestone soils and dry, hot weather, both prevalent in the south of France. But a series of natural disasters, including an epidemic of silkworms in the 19th century, rendered many fields useless. By the 20th century, many truffle fields went unattended through World War I. There just weren't enough people available and the techniques of "truffliculture" were lost.

Since the production of truffles fell to record lows, the prices have continued to go through the roof. Truffles are all about supply and demand and some years they have commanded upward of $3,000 per pound.

So what is it that makes the elusive truffle so sought after?

The distinctive aroma is a large part of the attraction. The rich, strong smell is directly correlated to the delicious flavor and freshness. No smell, no taste. And because of this odiferous characteristic, the harvesters, most commonly pigs and dogs, can find and retrieve their treasures. The animals root around, dig them up and the farmers snatch them before they are eaten. (This process of rooting also spreads the truffle spores and aids in their reproduction.)

In season, Antonio Carluccio displays the tuber magnatum on the table just inside the door of his Neal Street Restaurant in London. Customers say that the scent is irresistible.

And the flavor is exquisite. Truffles are best used thinly sliced or shaved and served over fresh pasta or risotto or even a simple fried egg. The elusive flavor often is lost when truffles are heated.

Because of this year's unusually dry summer in Italy, there is a bumper crop of the fragrant delicacies. Jane Walsh of the Chef's Warehouse, which supplies many of New York's top chefs with truffles, explains that "if the good weather continues, we can almost guarantee that we will have these through mid-January." The result is relatively bargain prices of $100 per ounce versus last year's $300 per ounce.

Amici recently received its first shipment of 2005 express-shipped from Italy. The shipments are expected to continue through December from a private farm in Piemonte, Italy, one of the best truffle-growing areas.

Maurizio Ciminella, Amici's managing partner, said, "Some of our regulars and our season visitors who have been stopping in early have asked me about it, so I ordered ahead of schedule and will have regular shipments. It has to be consumed fairly fast and served in a certain time period for the best flavors."

Oh, and truffles have been long praised for their reputed aphrodisiac powers. While this has never been exactly established, it certainly adds to the magic of the truffle legend.

Published: Dec.01 2005
Source: Palm Beach Daily News.

Shed home   14.12.2005.

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