Tuber melanosporum is known across the world through different names like black truffle, Perigord truffle, or French black truffle. This species of truffle is a native of Southern Europe and has gained a reputation for being one of the most expensive edible mushrooms in the world.
The best black truffles come from France, particularly in the southwestern region called Dordogne. Within that region, the most famous black truffle comes from a specific part known as Perigord. Because of this, fresh winter black truffles also gained the name “Diamonds of Perigord.”
Other natural habitat of the black truffle includes various regions in Spain and Italy. It is presumed that these are the areas where the host plants found refuge during the last Ice Age. There are large natural forests and areas where truffles are abundant such as the county of Alto Maestrazgo which has the ideal conditions for cultivating truffles. Albocasser, Atzaneta, Culla or Morella are just some of the villages in this region where large amounts of black truffles are found.
Black truffle season is from December to March when French truffle markets would feature the delicious Tuber melanosporum.
The round dark brown fruiting bodies of the black truffle have a black-brown skin with small, pyramidal cusps. They can reach lengths of up to 10cm and some can be larger. One black truffle has an average weight of 30-60 grams. In 2012, a black truffle was found in Dordogne weighing in at 1.28 kilograms.
Black truffles’ flesh is initially white then dark. It is permeated by white veins which turn brown when they age.
As for their odor, the black truffle exudes a scent reminiscent of undergrowth, strawberries, wet earth, or dried fruit with a hint of cocoa. Their taste is slightly peppery and bitter which fully develops after the truffles are heated. Black truffles reach their pinnacle of fragrance and flavor in January and February.
Like all other varieties of truffles, the Tuber melanosporum grows beneath the surface of the soil among the root systems of specific trees which primarily consists of oak but also beech, hazelnut, chestnut, birch and poplar.
With the exception of the Alba truffle, black truffles are the rarest, most desirable, and highest-priced among other truffles. Since 2010, there has been a significant drop in productivity in naturally-producing forests which brought rise to cultivating areas in Spain. Despite the drop in the natural production of this delicacy, the demand for black truffles remains strong.
Looking for Black Truffles
Although advances in agriculture has resulted to the successful cultivation of black truffles and other species of edible fungi, the best black truffles are still the fresh black truffles in the wild.
Searching for black truffles is a 200-year old tradition. The traditional method used by truffle hunters or rabassiers to locate and unearth a black truffle are identical to the technique used by the trifolai or the Italian truffle hunters when hunting Alba white truffles in Northern Italy. This technique uses pigs or dogs.
Pigs are the best truffle hunters. Female pigs have the natural ability to detect truffles buried in the ground by using their acute sense of smell. Their affinity for truffles can be traced to the truffles’ compound which is very similar to a pheromone secreted by boars.
In the early days, once a truffle was located, there was a race between a pig and a human to obtain the prize. Unfortunately, truffle pigs tend to eat the truffles they find. Because of this, more and more truffle hunters use trained dogs to find these elusive black diamonds. This also resulted into truffle dog rustling in some areas in Southern France.
Another more peculiar method of finding black truffles makes use of the sun and a divining stick.
Black truffle hunters claim nothing is better than hunting for and finding fresh winter black truffles during December.
However, hunting for black truffles requires time and is labor intensive. These drive the high prices of the fresh black truffles. Truffle markets can be found all over France but the largest is in the small village of Richerenches in the French south.
The smell of winter black truffles is at its best during January and February. It is also when truffle markets are at their busiest where fresh black truffles can sell for as high as €1,000 per kilogram.
Eating Black Truffles
One of the reasons black truffles cost so much is their culinary value. In the mid-19th century, France’s most famous gastronome, Jean Brillat-Savarin, called the truffle the diamond of the kitchen and praised it as an aphrodisiac.
Old French cookbooks often call for great amounts of truffle. This was back when as many as 1,000 tons of black truffles were found in France annually. With today’s production, truffles are used more sparingly.
Black truffles are a standard feature in expensive, Michelin-rated restaurants. Chez Bruno, a restaurant south of the Var village of Lorgues, is headed by media-friendly Chef Bruno. He is so passionate about truffles that he reportedly uses 5,000 kilograms of black truffles per year for his truffle-centric cuisine. Black truffles are used to refine the taste of meat, fish and soups. When heated, the scent of black truffles become more intense.
One delicious recipe which uses black truffles hails from Spain. It’s called the huevos escalados which translates to blanched eggs. Its simple preparation involves only 5 steps:
- Put an egg into a plastic bag.
- Grate black truffle over it.
- Add oil and salt. Close the bag.
- Boil water in a pan.
- Put the bag inside the pan for 7 minutes.
France accounts for 45% of the world production of black truffles followed by Spain (35%) and Italy (20%). Smaller amounts of black truffles are grown in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, North America, and South Africa.
Cultivating black truffles involves the planting of hazel trees whose roots are pregnant with truffle mycelium. The fruiting bodies are then harvested 4 to 40 years after planting the trees.
You can, obtain young, treated trees that will grow to truffle maturity in as little as 10 years. In the larger truffle markets, you’ll find professional truffle-tree vendors who can provide you with young trees who have expert advice about planting and maintaining them.
Because of the demand for black truffles, some doppelgangers made their way into the market. Chinese fungus, or Chinese truffle, looks similar to the black truffle but its smell and taste is far off. However, if it’s placed in a collection of real Tuber melanosporum, the Chinese fungus will absorb enough of the smell to almost seem genuine and fool an amateur.
As rare and as expensive as they are, black truffles aren’t the only enjoyable truffles on earth. Magic truffles such as Psilocybe cubensis can also be prepared in many different ways and, although not a gourmet treat, they are guaranteed to give you a magical, psychedelic experience.
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