Is this real truffle oil? We’ll find out.

Mac and cheese. Popcorn. Eggs. Pastas. I’ll eat truffle on nearly everything, so it’s no surprise that Umbria, one of the Italian truffle regions, happens to be one of my favorite places in the world. I fell in love with this region in 2011 when we spent several weeks in Assisi, cooking Italian food from Cucina Umbra and enjoying the dishes suggested by my dear friend Brenda, owner of wine bar Vinosofia in nearby (charming) Spello: the cutest town you might never have heard of.

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The beautiful Italian hill town, Spello, as seen from the country path (once an aqueduct) leading to it. Spello has a flower festival each year, which only adds to its charm.

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The olive tree-lined road, once Roman aqueduct, that leads to Spello and overlooks the Umbrian Valley.

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Just a few more of the Umbrian Valley, because I can’t help myself.

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I walked this in July, at 9 am and in 100 degree heat, and I’d do it again!

Enough about Umbria. I digress . . .

Truffles have done nothing but grow in popularity on U.S. menus since then, so I went back to Umbria ready to learn a little more about this somewhat magical . . . fungus? Mushroom? What is a truffle, anyway? Read on, amuse your friends with truffle facts, and improve your ability to purchase the most quality truffles from an industry that has more than profited (and taken advantage of) the truffle craze.

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Truffle Overview

What is a truffle? Let’s start with the facts: they’re  as fascinating as truffles are delicious.

  • Is it a mushroom? It's technically a "fruiting body." Tell me that's not 
    fun to say. It's a fungus of genus Tuber, and some of the species are 
    edible.
  • It grows underground. (Say "subterranean" when impressing your friends. 
    "Subterranean fungus of the genus Tuber." You're practically a scientist.)
  • If you'd rather be poetic than scientific, call them the "diamonds of the 
    kitchen." That's what famous French writer and food-lover Brillat-Savarin 
    referred to them as.
  • Truffles are renowned in the international gastronomic world, but before 
    their popularity, you could find truffles in French, Georgian, Greek, 
    Italy, Middle Eastern, and Spanish cuisines.
  • Truffles aren't just found in Europe: the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia, to name a few, also grow variations of the truffle.
  • They grow in the roots of trees. Get science-y and say that they have a 
    "symbiotic relationship with the tree's roots," which is called mycorrhiza.
  • Their spores are spread through animals that eat fungi, also called (how 
    awesome is this?) fungivores.
  • Specially trained dogs or pigs (yes, pigs!) find the truffles, which grow 
    under a layer of fallen leaves. While many believe that pigs are the better truffle hunters, they also are quick to eat the unearthed treats, and are therefore used less often than their canine counterparts. (Using pigs is 
    now illegal in Italy: the female pigs that they use destroy the ground around the trees, making it difficult for truffles to grow again. And they tendto eat the truffles once they find them: a chemical in the truffle smells 
    very similar to a male pheromone given off by boars. Whoops.)

Science!

OK, now on to the culinary deliciousness . . .

What does a truffle taste like? It depends on the type of truffle you are eating (and, as we shall see, if you are even eating a truffle at all). Most of the truffles we see are white or black: we will take a look at the differences between white and black truffles.

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White Truffles

Fast facts:

  • White truffles are actually a cream or light brown color with white 
    marbling, but who is splitting hairs?
  • There are actually several species of white truffle found in Italy alone.

White truffles (Tuber magnatum) are most often associated with the Italian regions of Piedmont and the cities of Alba and Asti: they also grow in Molise, Abruzzo, and Tuscany. Outside of Italy, they are found in Croatia, Slovenia, and parts of France.

Another variety of white truffle, Tuber magnatum pico, is found in other parts of northern and central Italy.

“Whitish truffle” (Tuber borchii) is yet another species that is found in Tuscany, Abruzzo, Romagna, Umbria, le Marche, and Molise. It is said to be less aromatic than the other species of Italy.

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Umbrian chicken liver crostini with truffle butter and capers. A poor quality photo and a description that might not sound too enticing. Too tough to swallow? TRUST ME. It’s delicious. And everyone knows it’s bad luck to lie about chicken livers. Or truffles.

Black Truffles Truffle

Fast facts:
  • It is the second-most commercially valuable
    species.
  • It grows under oak and hazelnut trees in the
    Perigord region in France.
  • Black truffles are harvested in late fall and in the winter.
  • They are much less pungent than their lighter
    counterparts, and often used in honeys, butters, pates and other truffle products.

Truffle Oil: You’ve probably been duped

Because of their rarity and inability to be successfully reproduced to meet market demands, truffles are indeed expensive. So how is it that I scored that bottle of truffle oil at Marshalls for $5?

The truth is that most truffle oils contain no truffle. It’s typically olive oil that has been flavored with a synthetic agent like 2.4-dithiapentane. “Science, again?” Yes, science again. The compound 2.4-dithiapentane is the result of combining methyl mercaptan (a naturally occurring compound found in some foods, cheeses, and farts. Yes, farts.) to formaldehyde (the compound used to embalm people).

I felt duped after learning this, and you might too. Here’s the chemical equation for 2.4-dithiapentane to make you feel a little smarter.

2 CH3SH + H2C=O + HCl(aq) → CH3SCH2SCH3 + H2O

Yeah, that didn’t help me either.

So what are we left to think about this mass-produced “truffle oil?” For me, it’s a sign that consumers like the taste of truffle, which is a great thing: its pungent aroma is, to me, one of the most enticing smells, and I love the depth truffles add to a dish. And as a lover of all things food, learning what a “real” truffle taste like just becomes a sort of culinary escapade: one that will lead you to some of the most beautiful places Italy has to offer.

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