The truffle is prized by foodies around the globe—and for good reason. Its earthy, ineffable flavor makes other fungi look like poor imposters. Truffles, however, are costly, and this cost does make some gourmands search for the deliciously dirty truffle taste without the sky-high truffle price tag.
In an effort to save money, some foodies turn to truffle oil. However, does truffle oil stand up to real, raw, whole pieces of truffle? Some would argue yes; others would say there’s no comparison at all to the “real thing.” Some gastronomes, and even some chefs, would even argue that truffle oil is the most cost-effective way to enhance a dish with the flavor of the indigenous truffles—white ones are found in northern Italy and black truffles in Perigord, France—to their dishes. It’s also worth pointing out that it can be difficult to find whole truffles in the US, so cooks, connoisseurs, and everyone else who wants a taste of truffle sometimes have little choice but to purchase truffle oil. This oil can cost as much as $30 for just over three ounces, and you can also find concentrated truffle oil made with cold-pressed oil pressed with actual truffle for as much as $70 for .33 ounces.
Chef Kevin Sippel of IWM’s Studio del Gusto takes the stand against truffle oil on the premise that it’s mostly artificial. “Truffle peelings and preserved truffles are garbage,” he says of the liquified version usually made of mushrooms, black olives and truffle oil. Instead, Sippel, who also dismisses other “imitation” truffles like those grown in Croatia, China, Poland or anywhere other than Italy or France, prefers using black winter truffles. Sippel observes that white truffles are great, but they’re far more delicate than the black and are therefore limited to specific dishes. “I like the punch you in the mouth and versatility of the black truffle,” he says. “They hold up well to aggressive cooking. Good white truffles should smell like good white truffles, and if someone is selling you white truffles from Alba ask for the certificate of authenticity.”
The price tag is high for truffle oil and it’s even steeper for actual pieces of the fungi. The expense stems from the labor necessary to gathering the tasty delicacy during its yearly season of September to December. Grown underground among the roots of oak trees mostly in the Langhe region of Piemonte and Alba, white truffles (or trifola d’Alba, the white truffle of Alba) are first located by the keen noses of the trufulau, or truffle hunting dogs, and then they’re gathered by hand. It’s a labor-intensive process to procure this luxury item. For example, 1.6 pound piece of truffle sold for $150,000 at the White Truffle Festival in Piemonte last November.
Delicate white truffles have hints of garlic and can be eaten raw or thinly shaved over pasta, risotto, eggs, fondues or just about anything savory, while black truffles have a more pungent aroma that makes them more food specific. The French counterpart to our trifola d’Alba, black truffles are earthier and are often stored with eggs or added to sauces, bread and other foods to permeate their flavors with truffled goodness. Slightly less expensive than white truffles, black truffle is a better choice with heartier foods like meat or rich sauces.
Any Piemonte Barolo will pair well with a white truffle-infused dish, but when having such a posh treat, you might as well go with some of the best like Bartolo Mascarello, Luciano Sandrone, Aldo and Giacomo Conterno, or Bruno Giacosa. IWM’s Perry Porricelli has tried all of these Barolos with truffles but favors Aldo Conterno’s Barolo Granbussia. Only made in the best vintages, Perry says “Aldo seems to have a wine made for truffles.” But then any meal with Granbussia is bound to be good—truffle, truffle oil, or truffle free.