The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Real truffles smell of sex, and that might be the only way to spot them
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi reflects on the scandal his opinion - that truffles smell of sex - caused more than a decade ago, and warns of scamsters.
Many years ago -- I imagine it must have been about 2002 -- I wrote in The Hindustan Times that truffles smelled of sex. (If you were not into sex, I suggested, then you probably thought that truffles smelt of old socks). These days we would consider that a fairly inoffensive (and entirely factual) remark. But fifteen years ago, it seemed totally outrageous. We didn’t have Twitter in those days but angry and outraged letters poured in to the paper.
What was I, the letter-writers asked, some kind of disgusting low-life pervert?
The anger was provoked by another factor. Most people had never smelt or even, seen a truffle. Some, I suspect, thought I was insulting their favourite kind of chocolate. (By the way, chocolate truffles, which have nothing to do with real truffles, were so named because chefs thought that they looked like little black truffles –which they don’t, really).
It is a measure of a) how much the food scene has changed in India over the last decade and a half, that many people are much more familiar with truffles and their smell today; b) that people don’t think that smelling of sex is so terrible; c) that diners are willing to pay high prices for truffles and d) that the world is globalised enough for us in India to get access to fresh truffles, a seasonal product with a limited shelf-life.
But, I may be getting ahead of myself. While most people no longer confuse real truffles with chocolates, we may still not be clear enough about the various varieties and the scams.
So, here’s a brief guide to truffles. And to the tricks employed by unscrupulous manufacturers and traders to get us to pay vast sums for cheap fraudulent rubbish because it is passed off as truffle-connected.
Black Truffles: There are truffles at the bedrock of French cuisine. Presumably, at some stage, they were not quite so expensive judging by how liberally they turn up in the standard recipes for classic French dishes. Often their use in these recipes seems unnecessary for so expensive an ingredient. For instance, Tournedos Rossini an old-style fancy restaurant dish is basically foie-gras on beef, but the sauce has to be made from Madeira (a fortified wine) and truffles. If made correctly, the sauce would cost as much as the meat. A lot of the great French chef, Auguste Escoffier’s recipes include such directions as “bone a chicken, stuff it with truffles etc.”
Most trained chefs will have some idea of what a black truffle is and how integral it is to French cooking. But they will see it as an ingredient. You can cook black truffles without damaging their flavour.
Tradition has it that black truffles grow wild around the roots of trees in a region called Perigord in France. The reality is more complicated. You find them all over France (Provence, Burgundy etc) and they are usually cultivated or farmed and not wild. Cultivating truffles is a long-term process that involves injected the spores into a tree and waiting several years for the first truffles to show.
Though the French don’t like admitting this, you get perfectly good black truffles in Spain and Italy.
White Truffles: The great success story of this century has been the ability of Italians to increase the global popularity of their white truffles, which grow wild in Alba in north Italy but are also found in other parts of Europe (including Croatia).
The white truffle has a delicate flavour that is destroyed by heat so there are few classical Italian recipes that involve the white truffle. Instead, it is shaved raw over eggs, pasta (tagliolini, mainly) risotto and a few kinds of meat.The black truffle is an ingredient. But the white truffle can only be used as a condiment.
It has a shorter shelf-life than the black truffle and the best white truffles are always snapped up by the great restaurants of Europe. A single fresh white truffle will have enough of an aroma to perfume an entire dining room.
Once the best white truffles have been snapped up, the second division goes to the shops. The worst ones, usually on their last legs, go to the foreign market. Which is why the white truffles you may have smelled in India lack the aroma of the best, fresh truffles.
Summer Truffles: The truffle season (especially for white truffles) usually begins in October and lasts till early spring. But you can get other kinds of truffles all year round. These are known as summer truffles and have a weak flavour. But because they are truffles, of one sort or another, they are often passed off as the real thing to credulous diners.
Global Truffles: There are two major non European global players in the truffle world. The Australians cultivate the black truffle so successfully that most great chefs will serve Australian truffles without a second thought.
There is a seasonal advantage too. Truffles appear in the winter and because Australia, located in the Southern hemisphere, has its winter when Europe has its summer ,the Australian harvest allow chefs to put truffles on the menu all the year round:truffles from Europe in our winter and from Australia when its summer in the Northern hemisphere and truffle season in Australia.
The Chinese have successfully cultivated the black truffle. But there is a problem, their truffles look right but have no taste or aroma. But unscrupulous sales people will spray truffle oil on Chinese truffles and pass them off as the real thing.
Bottled Truffles: From time to time, you will see jars of truffles on sale.Ninety-five per cent of the time, these will be small summer truffles with no flavour at all. Do not buy.
Truffle Oil: If you infuse oil or butter with a few slices of truffle, the fat will take on the flavour of the truffle. This is one of the unique qualities of the truffle. If you put a whole truffle overnight into a basket of raw eggs, the truffle aroma will transfer into the eggs, though their shells. Similarly, if you put a truffle in a jar of rice, the rice will take on a truffle flavour.
So, many years ago, chefs and suppliers began using truffle shavings to flavour oil and butter. These products had a short self-life but were popular because they preserved the aroma of the truffle .
Then, around 20 years ago, when the truffles became a global craze, demand for truffle oil shot through the roof and unscrupulous manufacturers turned to the chemical industry
The exact scent of a truffle is too delicate to recreate in a lab but one molecule (called bis methane) smells a little like a crude version of a part of the complex aroma of truffles. This chemical costs virtually nothing to produce and so, it is now routinely added to oil to produce an entirely synthetic product misleadingly labelled as truffle oil . This rubbish oil is then sold at high prices to customers who believe they are buying the real thing.
Funnily enough, packaging laws around the world are on the side of the purveyors of chemical truffle oil. They can describe their chemical as truffle ‘aroma’ as “essence” or “flavour” in the list of ingredients on the back of the bottle . And they can continue to describe a product that contains no truffles at all as “truffle oil”.
In the US, where the law prohibits people from describing anything as ‘vanilla’ if it is synthetically flavoured with vanillin, you would expect the law to clamp down on this mislabelling. But it may not. There were four cases against truffle oil companies for false labelling. So far, three are pending but the oil companies have won the fourth.
So, try never to buy truffle oil. It is synthetic, disgusting and (at least in my case) will make you feel ill. Never respect any chef who relies on truffle oil. Only fools, no-talents and scamsters do.
As knowledge about the truffle oil scam has spread, some manufacturers have taken to putting scrapings of summer truffle in the bottle to fool you into believing that the flavour comes from real truffles. Check the ingredient list: you’ll find ‘aroma’ or ‘flavour’ listed. The scrapings are only for show.
So what should we do: Not all of us can always afford gold or diamonds. When we do get our hands of something precious, we value it. So it is with fine wine. Or say, couture clothes.
Truffles are a luxury product and we should treat them like that. Most of us will eat them rarely and we will value the experience.
We wouldn’t drink cheap synthetic wine even it was mislabelled and passed off as great wine. We don’t buy fake gold. We know the different between couture and a cheap knock-off.
We should do the same with truffles. When we can get them --- and when we can afford them --- they are wonderful. But otherwise they are hardly such necessities that we need to use nasty chemical imitations.
Luxury can be amazing. But life goes on, just fine, without it. And to use disgusting synthetic imitations is to cheapen our experience of true luxury. See truffle oil as the food equivalent of a third rate fake Louis Vuitton bag sold in Lajpat Nagar or Patpong and you will see it in perspective!