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Friday, Jul 29, 2005

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An exotic vegetable

Neeta Lal

An ancient delicacy, the truffle is one of the most elusive and expensive tubers in the world.

Chocolate-mint dessert with truffle shavings

It can cost a whopping $4,000 a kg! Some varieties are locked up in vaults while others are traded as Internet stock. And it's a delicacy ancient Romans have killed for...

Truffle is one of the world's most exotic and expensive vegetables. In fact, such is the frenzy whipped up by this tuber in the world's spiffiest eateries — and increasingly Indian ones too — that no chef worth his Michelin star would execute an important meal without it. He or she may sprinkle it on delicacies, use it in confectionary, rustle up a pasta dish or salad or crown the piece de resistance with a plump truffle curl.

The truffle `pico' — christened "the diamond of the table" and available only in Michelin-consecrated restaurants worldwide — is reputedly the most expensive food money can buy.

Says Executive Chef Amit Chaudhury of Delhi's Taj Mahal Hotel, "Truffles indeed put a very special spin on a meal. And with Indian palates becoming more discerning, we now get many requests for truffle dishes." At the hotel's coffee-shop Machan, Chaudhury dishes out a very popular `Forest Mushroom Cappuccino' — a frothy soup spiked with truffle oil. For Sunday brunch, there's `Truffle Pasta' — a penne version with asparagus and truffle shavings.

Sea Bass with Truffles.

But, inarguably, his most popular dish is the `Sea Bass with Truffles' served at the hotel's Tony Chambers Club where the fish (embedded with truffle chunks) is marinated overnight and then baked with fragrant herbs and a dab of truffle oil.

Marriott Welcomhotel's Executive Chef, Manisha Bhasin, a self-avowed truffle fan, too prepares salads, pastas and flavourings using the exotic tuber for her fine-dining restaurants and corporate dinners. "We do truffles in many avatars. Its earthy, robust smell and delicate flavour have no parallel."

While chefs go into raptures over its gastronomic value, nutritionists swear by the truffle's nutritive component, believed to be the highest amongst all vegetables. Also, because of its strong, male steroid-like odour, truffles are credited with aphrodisiac qualities. In fact, in medieval times, Roman monks were forbidden from consuming truffles.

While there are about 30 varieties of truffles, the white Italian variety is considered a prized catch. The English (brown/black) and French (black with white veins) varieties are just a tad below in superiority. In Italy, the Tuscan golden triangle, Pisa-Siena-Florence near the medieval town of Abruzzo, and the Piedmont region are renowned truffle forest stretches.

As truffles can't be cultivated or even seeded, they carry an immense premium. More so because wherever this fungus grows, everything above it dies. However, globalisation, large-scale construction, acid rain, pesticides and pollution have together wreaked havoc on oak, poplar and willow forests, where truffles once thrived. Their global production plummeted from 1,000 tonnes per year at the turn of the 20th century to less than 20 tonnes in the new Millennium.

Interestingly, truffles are traditionally harvested using trained pigs to hunt them. The animals sniff out the vegetable from six metres away and upon detecting it, gobble up much of the crop! To prevent this, the pig's mouth is covered with a net.

In modern times, however, sniffer dogs — who cover more ground than pigs, don't feed on the crop and are easier to fit in the back of cars — are used for hunts. As part of training, puppies are often taken along with older dogs on family truffle-hunting trips. When they start locating truffles, their master rewards them by burying delicious cheeses in the ground for them.

In Italy, truffle hunters are called tartufai. Thousands of these sought-after — and cash-lush — professionals own fashionable trattorias (eateries). They comb European forests for the elusive tuber and even celebrate a Truffle Festival in November.

Since a lot of money is at stake in the truffle business, tartufai are naturally possessive of their hunting ground. The locations are usually a secret passed from father to son, orally. While picking truffles, tartufai park their vehicles a short distance away to mislead competitors! The hunters are also protected by an ancient law, which allows them to even trespass private land.

Truffle hunting dogs are also guarded carefully and, as a rule, never sold locally lest they reveal prized locations to the competition. The steroidal smell drives the dogs to dig up the fungus. Midway through digging, the hunter scoops out a handful of the moist earth and inhales deeply. A strong sulphuric odour confirms the presence of truffles.

European scientists have now developed an electronic "nose" to unearth the fungus This saves nearly 40 per cent of the crop from destruction caused by animal hunts. The "nose" is fitted with dozens of sensors capable of detecting the chemicals released by truffles.

With so much going for truffles, perhaps the next time you travel abroad you could skip the chocolates and carry back a bottle of truffle oil, paste or butter...

Pictures by the author

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