When someone mentions truffles, the first thought that comes to mind is ‘expensive.’
Have you ever wondered why truffles are so expensive, though?
Truffles are far from being a new fad. In fact, William Makepeace Thackeray in Memorials of Gormandizing written in 1841 wrote : “Presently, we were aware of an odour gradually coming towards us, something musky, fiery, savoury, mysterious, — a hot drowsy smell, that lulls the senses, and yet enflames them — the truffles were coming.”
And there are quotes from the late 19th century gastronome Brillat-Savarin that truffles are ‘a luxury of grands seigneurs and kept women’, perhaps alluding to the truffle’s reputation as an aphrodisiac.
In Peter Mayle’s (of A Year in Provence fame) book ‘Acquired Tastes’ he set about researching the world’s most luxurious goods and why they command such a high price. One of the chapters is dedicated to what he calls ‘The Millionaire’s Mushroom’. He had plenty of time to research this particular topic while living in Provence, because while the Perigord is where truffles originally became acclaimed, they do grow all around the Provence region as well.
So why are truffles so expensive?
The enigma of the truffle
There are a few reasons. One of them could be the enigma of the truffle – nothing tastes or smells quite like fresh truffles except… fresh truffles. The aroma defies the taste and is incredibly difficult to describe.
Truffles get their taste from their aroma, which is quite different to any other food source. Earthy, pungent and nutty are adjectives that are thrown around a lot, but once on the tongue, the truffle has a very delicate flavour that can easily be overpowered by the food.
This aroma comes from pheromones found in truffles. These pheromones are known to affect animal and insect behaviour. Truffles emit androstenol, a steroidal pheromone found in humans, and androstenone, which boars produce for mating.
This explains why pigs were traditionally used to harvest truffles!
The skill and effort in harvesting the truffles
Originally, truffles were not cultivated and only found in the forests under certain types of oak and hazelnut trees. Pigs were drawn to the pheromones emitting from beneath the forest floor and went after the truffle beneath. It was very difficult to pull a 200kg pig off a truffle and there is many a truffle hunter missing a finger from trying to pry his precious prize out of the pig’s jaw! Fortunately, dogs were later able to be trained to sniff out the truffle, let the hunter know where they were, and not wrestle with them for the prize!
A third method was used by some secretive hunters who did not want to reveal their whereabouts with the pig or dog and that has to do with the pheromones that attract insects. These hunters would wait for the right conditions and go through the forests looking for flies to startle up from the vegetation. A certain type of fly is attracted to the aroma and lays its eggs on the truffle. Digging around evidence of these flies is another useful and inconspicuous technique.
The time investment and unpredictable nature of cultivating truffles
Even now technology has allowed the widespread cultivation of truffles, it is still a very labour intensive and unpredictable exercise. Soil analysis must be done to make sure the soil has the right balance of alkalinity and acidity. Trees (oaks and hazelnuts) need to be inoculated with spores of truffles at their roots at the sapling stage and planted when the soil conditions are correct. For hazelnut trees it can take 7 – 10 years for them to start producing decent truffles, and oak trees 10 – 12 years. Although they take longer to ‘bear fruit’, oak trees tend to have a longer life span of producing truffles, which some farmers consider to be a better investment. The soil around the truffles mush be continually monitored and not be compacted for the truffles to be able to grow nicely. If the soil is too compact, the truffles won’t have their lovely round shape. For this reason, many farmers don’t harvest what could be a secondary crop from hazelnuts because the process involved in collecting the hazelnuts badly affect the soil around the truffles. Instead, they allow the hazelnuts and leaf litter to decompose and put their nutrients back into the ground.
During the ripening season, the ground must be monitored for pests. When there is evidence of truffles starting to come to the surface, several passes are made through the trees to cover the unripened truffles in sand to protect them from insects and vermin.
Given the intense effort that goes into producing the truffles it is easier to understand the price they fetch. And even after all this effort, there is no guarantee of a successful harvest. It is all up to mother nature!
It is important to note that not all truffles are expensive – there are many different varieties of truffle, but it is the prized black truffle (Tuber Melanosporum) and the white truffle (Tuber Magnatum) that fetch the highest prices. So it is imperative to know your truffles and trust your supplier before parting with your precious dollars.
However, when you do have the chance to eat a carefully prepared top-quality truffle, you are in for a gastronomic delight!