Consider this: last November, a 2.6-pound white Italian truffle was auctioned for a record $112,000 at Sotheby's of London. Are you wondering what the qualities of that humungous fungus were that it fetched such contraband-caliber demand? Listen to Chef Rocky Maselli of Marché restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, sing the glorified mushroom's praises: "The pungent aroma leaves you light-headed. The flavor is sweet and earthy, with a hint of mushroom and fruit tones."
Still not convinced? Here's a scientific take from Charles Lefevre, holder of a doctorate in mycology (the study of fungus): "Truffles contain musky hormonal compounds, which have been shown to alter our behavior, to make us feel that people around us are more attractive." Lefevre stops short of saying it, but the nineteenth-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin pronounced the truffle "a positive aphrodisiac."
Possible amorous developments aside, Maselli says, "I pair this rare and powerful ingredient with a flavorful but neutral dish." He shaves an uncooked white truffle over a risotto or pasta with Alfredo sauce. The heat in the dishes releases the truffle's flavor. For a casual approach, he grates truffle over an asparagus pizza when it emerges from the oven. Dessert? He flavors whipped cream with black truffle and tops a dense chocolate cake with it.
Truffles enjoy a short period of availability in winter, which seems to concur with their taste. "I crave the hearty, rich flavor when it's cold outside,"says Maselli, who eschews frozen truffles.
While black truffles from France's Perigord region (about $800 a pound) and white ones from Italy's Piedmont (about $2,300) have long defined the haute cuisine of truffles, they are found throughout the world and those more subtle-flavored examples from Oregon represent quite a bargain ($100 for white and $130 for black).
Despite the enduring image of the Gauloise-puffing woodsman foraging with his truffle-sniffing pig or dog, truffles have largely been cultivated since the nineteenth century. The once-huge French harvest has declined drastically, however, due to development. Oregon-based New World Truffieres, which employs Lefevre, sells oak and hazelnut seedlings inoculated with European varieties of truffle "seed." Wine-producing regions are particularly conducive to trufficulture, he says, insisting that truffles are easy to raise provided the aspiring truffiere (truffle farmer) invests in a well-trained canine.
"The bulk of the work entails walking your dog every day with a satchel over your shoulder to bear the burden of your harvest. If that's not the good life, I'm not sure what is."
Visit www.marcherestaurant.com and www.truffletree.com.