Truffles: a delectable labor of loveJan 29, 2024 10:21AM ● By Victor Block
Nadine was excited. She scampered along a haphazard route, pausing now and then to sniff at the ground. Occasionally, she began to dig in the dirt, her breath quickening and eyes widening.
But she was not permitted to complete the excavation she had begun. That task was finished by Vanessa, who distracted Nadine with a tasty treat and used a trowel to discover and uncover the object of their search.
Nadine is a dog but she’s far from an ordinary canine. She is trained to find truffles, and I recently accompanied her and her handler, Vanessa Shea, on a hunt for those elusive and seemingly unattractive fungi, whose value far surpasses their outward appearance.
TRUFFLE TREASURE HUNT
During this expedition, we explored the truffle-rich grounds of Virginia Truffles, a family-owned enterprise in the mother state of U.S. presidents. Truffles, though, are cultivated in orchards across the nation, spanning from Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee to Idaho, Oregon and California. In Colorado, various truffle species grow wild, nestled at the base of trees within ponderosa pine forests. While these truffles serve as a food source for deer and squirrels, they are not the prized varieties cherished by humans.
My experience began with an introduction to everything truffle delivered around a blazing fire pit by Vanessa, her sister Olivia and their mother Patrice. My fellow adventurers and I benefitted from our hosts’ encyclopedic knowledge, which included historic facts, scientific tidbits and recipes for using these highly prized gastronomic gems.
It was fascinating to discover that truffles were prized at the time of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires. In contrast, the Medieval Catholic Church imposed a ban on the consumption of “the devil’s fruit.” They were also a favorite food of French Queen Catherine de Medici and King Louis XIV.
Truffles grow several inches underground beneath tree branches, favoring oak and hazelnut trees. Modern truffling is said to have evolved when French farmers observed pigs uprooting the edible fungus, then trained them for the hunt. However, they often consumed their prize before the farmer could rescue it, so trackers began training dogs who happily work for canine treats.
Upon learning that truffle farmers may patiently wait up to 10 years after planting their seedlings before experiencing their first harvest, and considering truffles are harvested within only a few months, I reached the conclusion that raising the subterranean fungus undeniably qualifies as a labor of love.
The bond between human and dog was unmistakable as I trailed behind Nadine and Vanessa, swiftly navigating through the orchard with Vanessa repeating, “Where’s the truffle?” Our trek, which lasted a little over an hour, produced five black truffles.
A post-hunt mini-buffet featured a delectable spread, including carrot soup, deviled eggs, pastrami and brie cheese, all enhanced with fresh truffle shavings or slices. The earthy, pungent aroma from the tubers that Nadine unearthed was almost overpowering for my nostrils or taste buds. Yet, the subtle hints of truffle in the food added a unique dimension which I found easy to enjoy but difficult to describe.
During a post-snack visit to the on-site laboratory, Patrice explained the truffle cleaning process and described the truffle grading guidelines, a system officially recognized by the United Nations.
Patrice mentioned that certain truffles sold to nearby white tablecloth restaurants command prices exceeding $120 per ounce. This revelation underscored the high value and demand for these exquisite tubers in the culinary world, reflecting the dedication to quality upheld by the farm.
She also shared some of the creative ways truffles can add flavor to food, several of which were vividly demonstrated and savored during our snack.
While some pairings, such as with eggs, soup, mashed potatoes and infusing sauces and dips, seem like a natural fit, the potential uses for truffles in tantalizing taste buds are virtually limitless.
Charmed by the distinctive scent, lore and taste of this unassuming yet delicious flavor enhancer, I purchased truffle-infused honey, salt and pepper to bring home. I look forward to enjoying them, creating a sensory connection to the unique experience that will linger in my mind and on my tongue.
Information about truffles and a list of growers throughout the United States is available at TruffleGrowers.com, the website of the North American Truffle Growers Association.