Hunted for, obsessed over, threatened by climate change, counterfeited, imitated, and used as a precious garnish at some of the world's best restaurants, truffles are every bit as complex and mysterious as they are rich in taste and odor. Dubbed by some as the diamonds of the kitchen, the forest fungus that most closely resembles a lump of charcoal is an exotic, mouthwatering delicacy that is equal parts delicious, expensive, and rare. They're also somewhat of a culinary enigma.
"They're extremely flavorful and very hard to find. The growth of the product in the ground is still a mystery, and it's never been figured out how to cultivate them," says chef Fabio Trabocchi, of Washington D.C.'s recently opened Casa Luca and soon-to-open Fiola Mare, on what makes truffles unique. It's a simple explanation, but it accurately describes both the average foodie's obsession with truffles and their accompanying sky-high prices – they're unbelievably good (on anything savory), they're hard to find, and they can't be grown artificially. On top of all that, the short harvests – often done with the aid of trained truffle-sniffing dogs and pigs – and the even shorter shelf life of truffles only add to their allure.
Available in two different types – black and white – truffles are only ripe during two brief seasons, and once removed from the ground they need to find their way to your mouth inside five days. "There is probably a span of two to four days maximum," says Trabocchi about the truffle's circle of life. "The truffle is [out of] the ground, and then four days later it's in the restaurant." White truffles – known as bianchetta in Italy – are the more desirable of the two tubers, capable of being three to four times more potent than even the best black truffles. The ‘bianchetta' season usually begins around September 22 or 23 and runs through November, when they're at their ripest. Black truffle season then picks up from there, continuing through the early winter. This short window – not only for harvesting truffles, but also for getting them onto the table – is why you need to be both vigilant and careful when ordering. "There are always a couple of questions you want to ask before you place an order: when you got them, when they got to customs, and what day they were picked," says Trabocchi.
Due to the degree of difficulty in acquiring the ripest truffles – not to mention the astronomical price, which can reach thousands of dollars a pound – it can be tempting to settle for imitations like truffle oil. Don't. Any products other than the real thing rarely contain any actual truffles and are simply trafficking in the misleading chemical reproduction of the prized truffle aroma. Similarly, if you're lucky enough to get your hands on some ripe truffles – be they black or white – outside of the confines of a restaurant, don't make the typical American mistake of smothering them with extra ingredients. Like many things, the rule here is to keep it simple, stupid, whether you shave your truffles over a warm plate of scrambled eggs or add them to a steaming plate of pasta with butter and Parmesan.
To that end, Trabocchi has only one rule when cooking with truffles: "There is one restraint only, which is simplicity," he says. "It's all about the truffle. It's not about what we can come up with for the dish after the truffle is there. You don't want to have other competitors in the dish."
If purchasing them on your own, truffles can be bought from the following trustworthy vendors, either in person or via mail-order: Plantin America, Alma Gourmet, Andrea Doria Gourmet in New York, and D'Artagnan in Newark, New Jersey. And every January, Trabocchi offers a bianchetto truffles special at all of his restaurants, which allows diners to buy white truffles at market value. These can be shaved right onto dishes tableside, or taken home to use, for instance, on Trabocchi's recipe for tagliolini with white truffles, below.
Tagliolini con Tartufi Bianchi d’Acqualagna (Tagliolini with White Truffles)
• Fresh tagliolini (enough for 6 people)*
• Semolina flour for sprinkling
• 2 1/2 oz white truffles
• 1 1/4 cups chicken stock
• 12 tbsp (6 oz) unsalted butter
• Kosher salt
• 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 6 oz)
*Fresh pasta is preferred for this dish. If you do not want to make fresh pasta at home, decent refrigerated purveyor-made fresh pasta can be purchased at gourmet food shops. For best results, do not substitute dried pasta.
Sprinkle a baking sheet with semolina and set aside. Dust a counter or other work surface lightly with semolina.
Lay the fresh tagliolini on the prepared baking sheet. Cover with a dampened towel, and refrigerate until ready to use.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
Gently clean the white truffles with a brush – removing any dirt on the surface – then set them aside to come to room temperature while you prepare the sauce.
Add the chicken stock to a large sauté pan, place over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Boil to reduce the liquid by one-third.
Reduce the heat to low, add the butter, and gently move the pan back and forth on the burner until the butter melts and is incorporated into the stock. Season to taste with salt, and remove from the heat.
Add the tagliolini to the boiling water and immediately stir to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Cook for about 3 minutes, or until the tagliolini begin to rise to the surface. Set aside about 1⁄2 cup of the cooking water, and drain the pasta in a colander; shake the colander to drain well.
Carefully rewarm the sauce over low heat. (If it gets too hot, the sauce could separate; if that happens, swirl in some of the reserved pasta water to re-emulsify.) Add the pasta and Parmigiano, and toss well to coat.
Divide the pasta among six warm plates. Use a truffle slicer or a small handheld mandolin to shave the truffles over the pasta. Serve immediately.