Uncovering the Truth about Truffles
Article by Quincy DeYoung || Summer 2015
Following a trip scouting for truffles in the hills of Istria, Croatia, I discovered an inconvenient truth about the origin of most store-bought truffle oils.
Instead of pigs, we hunted truffles with dogs in Istria, Croatia. Curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo terriers, in fact, with boundless energy and an appetite for feet as well as lucrative, underground fungi. These cute little pooches nipped at my toes as my companions and I gorged on a pre-hunt appetizer of black truffle scrambled eggs, a platter of truffle cheese, sausage and honey, as well as bread and black truffle olive oil.
When we loaded the dogs into the car, or rather, when they raced to the backseat after their command, we set off for the Motovun Forest. There, we trailed behind the farm owner’s son as he pursued the dogs. They seemed to go wild with their noses glued to the ground and their tails wagging furtively. They ran ahead of us but never strayed far and began digging whenever they suspected a truffle. After about fifteen minutes we found our first one.
Istrian truffles are shipped to buyers around the world. Since truffle cultivation remains relatively difficult, truffles often remain free-range under the earth and expensive to buy. It’s no wonder that nearly everyone in this truffle-laden forest of southern Croatia keeps truffle-hunting dogs of their own. Yet, it is still surprising, (according to the ever reliable Wikipedia) that the single-most expensive truffle went for $330,000.
With truffles being so expensive, I found it curious, once home in Connecticut, that the truffle oils I found in my supermarket went for just $10-15 a pop. Not to mention, there was no difference in price between black and white truffle oils, while white truffles are more difficult to find and thus more expensive than black truffles. Chef Daniel Patterson (of Coi in San Fran,) also found this inconsistency to be curious, and discovered something rather sinister. In his NYTimes article, Patterson explains that grocery store truffle oil, and even products from high-end sellers, are often created with a lab-concocted truffle substitute, the compound 2,4-dithiapentane, and not slivers of fresh truffle as one might expect.
This explains the affordable price of truffle oil in supermarkets, its wide availability in restaurants, and its imperviousness to the changing seasons. Sure enough, when I went back to my local supermarket and inspected the ingredients of their truffle oil selection, I discovered only ‘truffle flavor’ and never the simple ‘truffle’.
So, next time you’re in the market, keep a nose out for ‘truffle-flavor’ in the ingredients list of truffle-infused anything. And as for shmancy truffle-flavored plates when you’re dining out, be wary of the truffle flavor’s probable origins. While truffle flavor is delicious, dupery is not!