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TRUFFLES - Known as the diamonds of the culinary world, truffles are prized all over the world for their pungent aroma and distinct flavor. A short season makes truffles all the more valuable, causing farmers across Italy and France to go into a truffle frenzy to find these delicious tubers. France is most famous for its black truffle, or the Perigord Truffle, while Italy has been culinary blessed with the white truffle, also known the Piedmont or Alba Truffle.
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Truffles have been found in Europe, Asia, North Africa, and North America, but only three species are commercially important. They live in close mycorrhizal association with the roots of specific trees. Their fruiting bodies grow underground.
The term "truffle" as commonly used refers to members of the genera Tuber and Terfezia. There are many other kinds of subterranean fungi, "false truffles," which outwardly resemble the ones we eat. They are far more common than the ones that are collected for food, and some are poisonous.
Truffles are round, warty, and irregular in shape and vary from the size of a walnut to that of a man's fist. The season for most truffles falls between September and May.
The mention of truffles conjures up images of the expensive French black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) from the Périgord region of southwest France, used in making pâté de foie gras, or the renowned odorous white truffle (Tuber magnatum) of Alba, in the Piedmont district of Italy.
Since the times of the Greeks and Romans these fungi have been used in Europe as delicacies, as aphrodisiacs, and as medicines. They are among the most expensive of the world's natural foods, often commanding as much as $250 to $450 per pound.
Truffles are harvested in Europe with the aid of female pigs or truffle dogs, which are able to detect the strong smell of mature truffles underneath the surface of the ground. The female pig becomes excited when she sniffs a chemical that is similar to the male swine sex attractant. The use of pigs is risky, though, because of their natural tendency to eat any remotely edible thing. For this reason, dogs have been trained to dig into the ground wherever they find these odors, and they willingly exchange their truffle for a piece of bread and a pat on the head. Not a bad trade for the truffle hunter! Some truffle merchants dig for their prizes themselves when they see truffle flies hovering around the base of a tree. Once discovered, truffles can be collected in subsequent years at the same site.
The flavor of the truffle is directly related to its aroma. The chemicals necessary for the odor to develop are created only after the spores are mature enough for release, so they must be collected at the proper time or they will have little taste. This is the only sure indication that the mushrooms are ready to be harvested. That is why animals have proven to be the best means of assuring that the fungi collected will be flavorful.