A Trifle Troubled over Truffles
Wednesday 15 December 2010
Truffles are a popular but expensive delicacy at Christmas in France, so is it possible to buy instead the illusion of gastronomic heaven?
With the price of the best varieties retailing for several thousand euros a kilo the pungent smell of fresh truffles on the dinner table is not one we can all enjoy.
Even though you are unlikely to need more than a single specimen for a garnish of the prized fungi over your pasta, in a pâté, or stuffed in the roast game, a small fresh truffle will still set you back at least several dozen euros, assuming you can even find one!
Part of the reason for their price is their scarcity, as demand is always in excess of supply.
The best of the truffle varieties - the tuber melanosporum - are also only available during the winter months, and they can only be found in certain areas of the country - primarily Dordogne and Provence.
Buying Truffles is Not Easy
Truffles can only really be best enjoyed if eaten fresh, but if you are looking to buy fresh raw truffles in France then you may well have difficulty in doing so.
Many of the markets where they are sold operate like a Masonic Lodge, with only those on an approved list of professionals allowed to enter and buy.
Truffles in these markets can change hands for anything between €150 and €1500 a kilo depending on the species, size and quality. Beyond the wholesale markets, prices shoot through the ceiling.
The celebrated black truffle of Perigord, the tuber melanosporum, can sell for several thousand euros a kilo.
A few markets are open to the public, and if you can get to one, it is a truly fascinating experience. The whole process is highly regulated, not least the weighing scales!
Although it is possible in these retail markets to buy small truffles of around 20 to 30 grammes, many truffles are sold in lots, so are not always accessible to individual buyers.
Make sure also that it is well cleaned, so you are not buying soil when it is weighed!
Is There An Alternative?
At this time of austerity in France as anywhere else, it is tempting for households who want a tasty tuber on the table at Christmas to opt instead for a ready made product from the supermarket shelves.
According to a recent survey by the French consumers association Que Choisir, in most cases you are likely to be disappointed with your purchase.
Que Choisir tested a range of truffle based supermarket food products, including oils, pâtés, sauces, white sausage, and potato salads.
They found that most of the products contained only a miniscule quantity of truffle, in some cases of a poor, inferior imported variety.
In a large number of cases, although the aroma of truffles was strongly present, in fact it was only just that – chemically based flavourings added to enhance the sensation of the real thing.
One of the product ranges they considered to be particularly poor value for money was cooking oils containing truffles.
The pâtés, at prices up to around €60 per kilo, were also generally considered to offer poor value for money.
The association was also very critical of the labelling of the products, which it was sometimes very difficult to interpret.
In many cases the products did not indicate the name of type of species of truffle in it, although it was clear from their own laboratory analysis that some were imported cheaper varieties from China.
The Chinese truffle has very little flavour or smell, and can be purchased at a fraction of the price of European varieties.
This truffle is often mixed with European varieties to increase the percentage of truffle in the product.
The same problem presents itself in restaurants and with truffle retailers; you need to know what you are buying, or you can easily be caught out with an inferior species.
The internet is now opening up an increased level of direct selling to the public, although as you cannot see and smell the product until you open it at home, using this approach is a leap of faith in the quality and honesty of the retailer.
Conserved truffles are widely available in France, and although they can frequently be disappointing, one such product that came out reasonably well on the Que Choisir test was conserved truffles from Aux deux Périgourdins. Others faired less well, but there are specialist dealers that probably offer conserved truffles for a similar quality.
Dried truffles are also available in the shops, but lack the flavour of the real thing, so are likely to underwhelm.
Perhaps the only cost effective solution, and maybe the more interesting one, is to buy a bloodhound or a porker and go and find them yourself!