What’s the big deal with truffles?

Torn from the earth by pigs mad with truffle-lust, or tenderly rended from the roots of a great oak tree by a man with equal passion for this noblest of fungi. So pungent that his hands still smell of it after he showers, the truffle hunter rewards himself with a few shavings at his evening meal. Without this consuming passion of hound, pig and truffle wizard, you are left with an unripe soulless knot of tasteless sawdust. The passionless product is the Chinese truffle, which is mined rather than discovered, and doesn’t measure up to French or Italian truffles.

The real thing is an epiphany. A ripe truffle makes ANYTHING taste better. Like when you have that second glass of wine and you suddenly seem more interesting to people, truffles add depth and personality to food. Earthy, savory flavors are resurrected from simple meals. You don’t know you need a dishwasher until you have one. You don’t know the wonderfulness of truffles until you add them to your food.

Truffles only grow on the roots of certain types of trees (oak, hazel, beech and poplar) on particular terroir (dry, sweet limestone soils). They give off a pungent smell that is detected by specially trained pigs or dogs (the pigs are often too intelligent to give the truffle up, and the hunter has to be very careful). They are so valuable that they are frequent targets of thieves and even the mafia gets involved.

Mycologists advise on how to improve the chances of growing truffles, inoculating trees and so on. Truffles are still an art, however, and, like wine, they resist scientific reductionism. The happy accidents of nature surpass anything myco-nerds have been able to come up with. Finding a truffle in the wild is an adventure, and eating one such is a small culinary pilgrimage.

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