In the jet age, we’ve grown accustomed to the year-round availability of agricultural products. This was never the case until very recently: most items were seasonal, and consumers were limited to what was farmed in their immediate area. Restricted consumption of an ingredient is now an unusual and special situation.
Truffles are among the most magical ingredients on earth. Their appearance in certain countries was a mystery for centuries, and most attempts to cultivate them have been unpredictable. We know they thrive in certain types of soil, in proximity to specific varieties of trees, and may be harvested during a limited season. There are black summer truffles in France, but the true black Périgord truffle is harvested during the autumn and winter. The grandest of them all, the white truffle—tuber magnatum—is on the market for a very short time, beginning in late September and continuing through October and November.
What makes it so special and so expensive? Above all, there is the aroma: heady, intoxicating, enticing and seductive. The writer who can adequately describe it has not yet been born. One theory why they are so irresistible holds that their aroma and flavor are an aphrodisiac—although (as with other substances) your results may vary.
There’s little doubt that the cost of white truffles adds greatly to their mystique. Depending on the year, the size of the truffle, and the balance between supply and demand, the price can range from $150 to $1,000 per ounce. As of this writing, Amazon is offering one ounce for $240. White truffles are traditionally sliced onto a neutral risotto or a fresh egg pasta in butter sauce, and one ounce can serve 3-4 people.
Where to have them? As fleeting as they are, you’ll remember the experience for the rest of your life if you’re lucky enough to consume them on site in Alba or Asti. Failing that, there are several top Italian restaurants in both Palm Beach and Naples offering them right now. Unless you’re a truly compulsive foodie, it’s hardly worth going to all the trouble of having them shipped to you at home and slicing them yourself on a stainless steel mandoline. Restaurants typically levy a surcharge of between $20 to $40 for a portion of white truffles sliced tableside, but remember that they are a break-even item for many Italian chefs: the mere act of serving them is a badge of honor. Remember, too, that life is short, and if you wait until December the moment may have vanished.
Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He has written several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, is available on amazon.com; his second novel, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is due out in Spring 2019.