In his book “The Botany of Desire,” Michael Pollan explores the various methods plants use to entice the “dominant” species on earth into doing their bidding — specifically, to help their species thrive and increase in number.
Plants with psychoactive compounds, like marijuana, push their promise of intoxication. A tulip romances us with its beauty. And the apple lures us in close with its bright red color, satisfies with the sweetness of its flesh, and then, much like the grapes of the Napa Valley, seals the arrangement with a tartness that perfectly balances the fruit once that sweetness has been converted to alcohol.
In return for these flora’s favors, human beings clear vast swaths of land to plant more of their kind, exactly as they would have us do. This is how different plant species exploit human beings in their quest to dominate the world.
Which begs the question, in this ongoing dating game of coevolution: What principal technique does the black truffle use to ensnare us to help secure its continued survival?
The black truffle, or Tuber melanosporum, plays hard-to-get — an unlikely approach given that this lumpy little knob with crocodilian complexion looks like a cross between elk scat and a chunk of coal. First, it grows only in specific conditions, along the roots of a few species of trees (oak, hazelnut, filbert) with which the truffle lives in symbiosis in well-drained soil. Second, it hides underground, typically between 1 and 5 inches deep. And third, it’s only suitable to eat when fully ripe, when its redolence is strong enough to press its way up through the soil and into the nose of one of the jealously cherished dogs trained to detect its scent.
Ah, the sensuous stink of the black truffle! As we took our seats at the Robert Mondavi Vineyard Room, the aroma of the bowl of black truffles on the front table radiated out with such intensity you could almost see it. It filled the room.
We soon discovered that this aroma is as mysterious as it is powerful, impossible to capture in words. Still, that didn’t keep the attendees from trying. Here are some descriptors we came up with: Barnyard. Peat. Earth. Moss. Fungus. Mineral. Pungent. Savory. Chocolate. The spongy pulp at the end of a broken tree bough. A blanket of dank leaves warming in the sun. And my personal favorite, courtesy of Mondavi chef Jeff Mosher: “The smell of a forest floor after rain.”
As the chef explained, although the black truffle stands up to heat far better than the white, you must take care when cooking with it. The flavor of black truffles opens up nicely to gentle cooking, but the price for this additional flavor is a commensurate loss of perfume. “You have to strike a balance.”
“Perfume.” “Barnyardy.” “Mineral.” Almost sounds like wine talk, doesn’t it? That’s why I was surprised when truffle expert Robert Chang, managing director of the American Truffle Company, explained that terroir — the way a wine grape chronicles the geography, geology and climate of its home — doesn’t really apply to black truffles. As long as the conditions are conducive to growth and the truffle is collected when fully mature, he explained, a truffle is a truffle is a
Except, that is, when it’s not. As reported recently on “60 Minutes,” there is an impostor in our midst, a stowaway trying to enjoy a free ride upon the increasing fervor for, and stratospheric prices demanded by, bona fide black truffles.
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To the dismay of honest purveyors, Chinese truffles, though not of the Tuber melanosporum variety and harvested (with rakes) unripe, have managed to wriggle their way into the otherwise legitimate black truffle market.
Black truffles can well exceed $1,000 per pound. (White truffles are pricier still.) With all that cash floating around, it’s no wonder a black market has emerged.
It’s also no wonder that the shaved bits and pieces of these counterfeit truffles can often be found in so-called “black truffle oil.” According to Chang, the flavor of truffle oil does not, in fact, come from the melanosporum, as its delicate components would break down too quickly in the bottle; but rather from truffle flavorings, or “aroma,” synthesized in a lab.
Here’s the good news: The truffle industry is keenly aware of the problem and has taken every measure to ensure that each fake truffle is summarily ejected. Thankfully, the knockoffs produce little or no scent and are readily distinguishable under a microscope.
The other good news: Black truffles, unlike white truffles, can be cultivated.
Still more good news is that the best way to sample this subterranean delicacy is with relatively simple dishes, which can offer a little background warmth without competing against the truffle’s flavor and aroma: Scrambled eggs with black truffle, for example, or — this is how Robert Chang got introduced — a plate of homemade pasta with butter and cream and a modest shaving of truffle on top.
The best news I saved for last: Right now there is a growing interest in cultivating black truffles here in the Napa Valley, an idea that just might, well, mushroom.
Black truffles grown here at home? Works for me. Because that afternoon tasting the dishes of Chef Suzette Gresham-Tognetti’s flavorful menu — a parade of truffle-celebrating flavors that kicked off with a Carpaccio of Loch Duart Salmon with Truffle Vinaigrette and concluded, all too soon, with a spoonful of Acquerello’s Truffle Gelato — paired with the rich, intense wines of Robert Mondavi was an afternoon I wouldn’t mind replaying.
According to Michael Pollan, this means of course that I am now, in effect, in the employ of a fungus.
If our experience at the 2012 Napa Valley Truffle Festival is any indication, I guess I can live with that arrangement. Like Bob Dylan says, “You gotta serve somebody.”
Cate Shanahan, M.D., is a family physician with Queen of the Valley Medical Associates and can be reached at 251-3681. Luke Shanahan is a food and health writer and aspiring cook. Their books include “Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Foods” and “Food Rules: A Doctor’s Guide to Healthy Eating.” Learn more at DrCate.com.