Fabulous Fungus


This column originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times.

Ah, the incredible bliss of truffles. Haunting and heady, they are food for the gods and sheer poetry for the mortal mouth.

But if thoughts of truffles conjure images of decadent candy in your mind, of those meltingly sweet mouthfuls of chocolate and cream that make us go weak at the knees and wide at the waistband, banish them now. This column is about something that, on its face at least, is a little less romantic than chocolate. This column is about fungus.

Fungus, indeed. These truffles are knobbly little dirt-encrusted tubers that grow underground near certain kinds of tree roots with which they have a symbiotic relationship. They appear in various places around the world — including the state of Oregon here in the United States — but the most famous and delicious come from Italy and France. Because they have stubbornly resisted efforts to cultivate them, there are never enough to go around, and some people are willing to pay astronomical prices — upwards of $3,000 a pound, some years — to get a bit of the smelly subterranean fruits.

So, what is it about a lumpy, warty truffle that can turn a usually rational person into a goofy, drooling fool, willing to part with a sizeable chunk of her paycheck for a single dish?

When a waiter shaves a fresh white truffle over my buttered pasta, I am as focused and obsessed as my dogs at mealtime — you could set me on fire and I might not notice. I bury my head in the steamy, mushroomy vapors that writhe up from my plate and inhale from my toes. Pure happiness.

That smell, of course, is a good part of the truffle’s attraction. A truffle that doesn’t have a strong odor doesn’t have much taste either, and if you eat a truffle dish with a heavy head cold, you might as well eat a plate of extremely expensive dirt.

The distinctive aroma of truffle permeates Alba, Italy, the truffle capital of the world and home of the most highly prized white truffle (Tuber magnatum). When you walk through the narrow streets of that medieval town, it doesn’t take the huge banner heralding “Mercato del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba” to tell you that you have found the famous white truffle market. The town smells the way heaven must — a rich and evocative perfume that is exhilarating and comforting at the same time.

In fact, without the truffles’ characteristic earthy muskiness, we would never get our hands on them at all. Truffles send out olfactory alerts to tell woodland animals where to dig, so they will excavate them and distribute their spores, helping them reproduce. Truffle hunters take advantage of those olfactory signals, using pigs or dogs to locate the most prized truffles — the white truffle of Alba and the black truffle of the French Perigord region (Tuber melanosporum.)

A female pig is an expert truffle hunter. Naturally drawn to the smell, which is reminiscent of eau de male pig, she snuffles around in the fallen leaves at the base of trees until she zeros in on the truffle site, where she promptly digs in and eats up the truffle. Given the going price of white truffles, her tendency to scarf up her quarry is a decided drawback.

Dogs, on the other hand, aren’t natural truffle hunters, but neither are they eager to dine on them. Truffle hunters prefer to work with dogs.

But it is not only the smell that makes the truffle such a treasure. Truffles are one of those foods that just oozes umami (pronounced “oooh mommy”), a flavor that scientists isolated in the 1990s as one of the basic taste categories — right up there with sweet, sour, bitter, and salt. In technical terms umami is a product of glutamates (which is why monosodium glutamate or MSG such a good flavor enhancer). In eating terms it is the meaty, savory ripe taste of mushrooms and aged cheeses, balsamic vinegar and anchovies. Truffles are the very essence of umami: earthy, rich, dark and mysterious.

No wonder truffles are such a draw.

Because the elusive flavor of white truffles is destroyed by heat, they are most delicious eaten raw, shaved onto fresh pasta or risotto or scrambled eggs. The most delicious dish I have ever eaten in my life is the Royal Salad at Il Sole di Ranco, a tiny hotel in northern Italy. Just thinly sliced porcini mushrooms and white truffles, with a bit of fruity olive oil drizzled over and a sprinkling of sea salt, it tastes of the fragrant depths of the earth. Eating it is almost a mystical experience — feeding the soul as well as the belly.

The sturdier black truffles can take some heat. They are perfect with foie gras and absolutely stunning with potatoes — au gratin, sautéed with duck fat, or even fried (as a dipping cream for French fries, they are exquisite.) They go beautifully with fish (especially fat, plump sea scallops) and are magic sliced thin and pushed under the skin of a chicken before roasting.

But truffles are not every-day food, at least not in the United States. European truffles are grossly expensive, after all, and so delicate that by the time you import them they may have lost much of their best flavor. For those of us who have truffle cravings on this side of the Atlantic, the best option may be to try the Oregon variety (good, but not quite the same as its European cousins) or to use truffled products like canned truffles, truffle butter, or truffle oil (available at specialty food stores.)

If you should happen into a fresh black truffle, the scallop recipe here is wonderful, but it is also good if you do no more than drizzle some truffle vinaigrette over the seared scallops, and chop a little preserved truffle on top. And try doctoring plain old regular mashed potatoes with some truffle oil or truffle butter – truly comfort food of the highest order. “Oooh, mommy,” are they good!

Pan Seared Scallops with Black Truffles and Brown Butter
November 17, 2004

Truffles and scallops are a match made in heaven, an extravagance well worth splurging for. If you don’t want to spring for truffles, drizzle a little truffle oil on your scallops after grilling or pan searing.

1 medium black truffle (fresh is best; canned and enhanced with a little truffle oil is okay)

24 sea scallops (Try to get the dry, untreated kind if you can. Local stores don’t carry them but several mail order outlets do. Most commercial scallops are treated with chemicals that make them exude a milky white liquid. Not only do they not taste nearly as sweet and delicious as dry scallops, but it is hard to sear them properly as they just steam in their own juices.)

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I add a little truffle oil here to make it more truffly)
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 cups mixed salad greens
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small bunch of chives, chopped
1 small handful chervil leaves (optional)

Using a truffle slicer, mandoline or sharp knife, cut truffle into 24 very thin slices. Reserve remaining truffle. Slice each scallop nearly in half horizontally. Slide a truffle slice inside each scallop and press closed.

Prepare vinaigrette by combining vinegars with salt and whisking in olive oil, to emulsify. Reserve.

Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat and cook until nut brown and fragrant. Strain through cheesecloth into a small sauce pan. Keep warm.

Heat oil in heavy skillet over high heat. When fat is hot, add scallops. Do not crowd or they will steam. You will likely need to do this in two batches (keep first batch warm in oven) or in multiple skillets. Let scallops sear until a brown crust appears on the bottom (resist the urge to check continually to see if they are cooking — they are). Add more oil if necessary. When scallops are caramelized on one side, carefully flip and sear the other. Scallops should be hot all the way through, but do not overcook or they will get rubbery.

Meanwhile, dress greens with vinaigrette. Heap salad in middle of four individual plates, surround by six scallops. Season each scallop with a pinch of sea salt and a bit of ground pepper. Drizzle brown butter over scallops, then grate remaining truffle over all and scatter with fresh herbs.

Serves four.

Adapted from Alain Ducasse, Flavors of France (NY: Artisan, 1998).

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