Why Those Black Truffles You're Eating Don't Taste Like Truffles at All

Black Truffle.jpg
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Black truffles don't really work like this, as I recently learned.
I remember my first encounter with truffles vividly, probably because it was a simultaneously euphoric and traumatic experience. I was on a date at Al Tiramisu, a basement Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., which I picked because I'd gotten a personal email from the chef. White truffles were here, it said, and he was so excited to share them with me. I found out why he was so excited later that night.

We were given a choice of risotto or pasta as a base for the glorious fungus. We both got risotto, and when the bowls of warm rice arrived, our waiter pulled out a pale, lumpy orb the size of a large marble from a wooden box and, with a silver shaver, rapidly sliced the truffle into our bowls.

That's when I started to get nervous.

I knew truffles were expensive, but I wasn't sure how expensive, and I didn't know the etiquette that governed table-side truffle shaving. Was this a similar situation to freshly grated parm or cracked pepper? Should I raise a single finger to indicate that I've had enough?

At the same time, the most amazing aroma was robbing me of every sense but my smell. When the thin shavings of truffle came in contact with the hot rice, they released an olfactory aura that induced an absolute stupor. I sat there paralyzed, trying to formulate a question and forgetting how to string words into sentences. In a flash the entire truffle was gone.

I'm not sure what else we ate that night, but it was modest, and yet I'll never forget the check. After tax and tip I'd spent $450 on that date. And I'll tell you something: It was worth it.

I can count on my hands, without reusing digits, how many times I've had a dish that was that transcendent. I relished every bite like an addict taking a hit on his way to treatment. There was no witty conversation at the table while we cleaned those bowls, just a constant streaming murmur of oh my god oh my god oh my god.

Since that meal I've had fresh truffles incorporated into a handful of meals. They've never invoked quite that visceral reaction as my first encounter, but they've at least been memorable.

Until recently, that is. My recent truffle encounters have left me confused. I had them twice while reviewing Campo, in a gnocchi dish and in beef-heart tartare. Matt McCallister, Campo's young and brash and inventive chef, used a microplane to shave what the menu called simply "black truffles" into thin wisps of hair. But in the finished dishes, they were odorless. I pulled some of the tangle away with my fork and took an entirely tasteless bite.

A couple weeks later, while working on an upcoming review of Private Social, I ordered monkfish with Burgundy truffles, and red wine beurre blanc, as described by the menu. Chef Tiffany Derry had shaved coins of black truffle over the dish. When it arrived, I eagerly took a bite. Nothing.

Now I was worried my palate was broken. I picked up a single slice of the truffle, put it on the back of my hand, held it up to my nose and inhaled deeply. If I detected any odor at all it was that of a freshly sliced button mushroom. It was fungal and damp, but completely devoid of that musky, pungent aroma that makes truffles the most prized, and most expensive, ingredient in modern dining.

After that first experience with truffles years ago, I swore off truffle oil, the chemically produced bastard sibling to the true truffle, and I'd joined other food writers in lamenting its over-use. Now, after my odorless bump at Private Social, I was starting to question myself. If the truffles I'd been eating in Dallas were representative of fresh, good product, I might actually prefer truffle oil. Something had to be wrong.

Then someone mentioned the recent 60 Minutes piece describing the infiltration of Chinese truffles into the European market. The substandard Chinese truffles, previously used for pig feed, have been making their way into French and Italian markets as an imposter, CBS reported. Vendors mix them in with batches of real European truffles like coke dealers cut their products with lesser stimulants. According to truffle exporters interviewed, up to 30 percent of the truffles they handle are bogus. Could those duds be making their way to Dallas?

I called Matt McCallister and asked him about his truffles. He told me comparing the black truffles to white isn't really fair. They're completely different ingredients, he said. And he's right. White truffles produce more of an aromatic experience; you almost taste them with your nose. Black truffles are more understated. Still, both truffles should result in impressive dishes.

McCallister gets his truffles from Mikuni Wild Harvest, a specialty foods vendor focused on wild foraged foods. I asked co-owner Tyler Gray if he'd ever heard of Chinese truffles. He had, but he assured me that the inferior product had never been sold at his store. Gray cited his 10-year relationship with some of the nation's finest chefs and foragers, and assured me his product was sound. "It really comes down to knowing and trusting your purveyors," he said. Gray also told me there was no way Private Social was serving Burgundy truffles. Otherwise known as summer truffles, their season had long ended.

Chef Tiffany Derry seemed confused when I called to ask her about her truffles. She needed to check with her buyers, she said, and soon after got back to me over email. "Winter Perigold Truffle from Burgundy," she wrote. That makes her menu reference to Burgundy truffles a little misleading, perhaps, but not sinister. Semantics aside, though, they were still tasteless.

It turns out McCallister's truffles were likely lifeless because they were getting old -- Gray told me chefs shouldn't hang on to fresh truffles for more than five days -- and they were used improperly. According to Gray, the black varieties are best when cooked into dishes like polenta and risotto. The flavor becomes much more pronounced when heated.

The truffles at Private Social suffered the same fate. Shaved over a finished dish, black truffles never realize their full potential, even if they're freshly dug from the French countryside. While a reputation for high cost makes the appearance of truffles on a menu seems like a luxury, that decadence is only real when a chef uses them quickly and cooks with them properly.

Freshness and pedigree aside, these truffles were simply misused -- a disappointment, since the finished dishes don't convey the real character of what is one of the world's most alluring ingredients. Bottom line for diners? Don't be seduced by truffles of any sort, unless their aroma seduces you first.

Location Info

Campo Modern Bistro - CLOSED

1115 N. Beckley Ave., Dallas, TX

Category: Restaurant

Private Social

3232 McKinney Ave., Dallas, TX

Category: Restaurant


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31 comments
Yearight
Yearight

If your paying 225$ a plate, seems to me your just an over privileged pompous prick.

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

 That reference was to the truffles I could taste. I could taste them so, so much.

twinwillow
twinwillow

While in Tuscany during November a few years ago, our hosts invited us to join in on a truffle hunt one early morning. We (er, the dog) sniffed up a few large white truffles.That night at dinner, our hostess, an accomplished cookbook author, cooked up a delicious, creamy risotto for dinner that was literally covered with a blanket of shaved white truffles. It was a magical meal I'll never forget.

Carl
Carl

Been to a lot of Bar-B-Que joints and have yet to see a truffle.  And the bars I've been to, those were pickled eggs, right? I damn sure hope so. 

Izabela Wojcik
Izabela Wojcik

How very interesting. I would Love to have experienced your first encounter with the truffle... Sounded memorizing;)

Chuck G.
Chuck G.

You can get this for free at any sandbox at any local park.

Marcy
Marcy

Personally, I like Rice-a-Roni.

Trufflecurious
Trufflecurious

I'd Love to know where I can get a true white truffle dish here in Dallas.

Kergo 1 Spaceship
Kergo 1 Spaceship

Chinese truffles taste like dirt.........the same places that serve this shite, serve white fish, and call it tuna, or talapia, or whatever. The old bait and switch; Italian resty's in the NORTH are famous for serving pork, and calling veal. What are ethics? 

Steve
Steve

that looks like shit on rice

Matt Mccallister
Matt Mccallister

Scott, to clarify.. the gnocchi dish had black trumpet mushrooms, aka the poor mans truffle.  Very earthy but no flavor like truffle.  As to the truffle not being used in a cooked method to release its flavor.. well that would have been a better route to go.  Seeing as I had paid $1000 a pound for those Perigords.  Nice article though

amy
amy

Pardon me for being bourgie for a second, but I've always felt that every truffle dish I've ordered in the US (only in NYC and Dallas, so I may be completely off) was tasteless compared to those that I had in France. Some warm truffle bread from a boulangerie? YES.

Don't hate on truffle oil! It's the poor man's alternative! It's like a sense memory thing - this stuff on my fries kind of smells like the REALLY GOOD stuff! Though, I do prefer truffle salt...

PORK
PORK

Great investigative article with important info-thanks Scott!

MelissaMcCart
MelissaMcCart

What about the ones from Tennessee? Or does terroir matter? 

Matt
Matt

Huh.  I really hadn't known much about the actual use of truffles in dishes before: that's rather fascinating that black truffles need to be heated to release the flavor and aroma...

Jack_Around
Jack_Around

Impostor Chinese truffles, eh? Restaurants are pulling the ol' bait and switch, or, perhaps, the "truffle shuffle."

Julia Treherne
Julia Treherne

Very interesting. I have never had Truffles before but have acquired 4 black ones. After reading your article it seems the best course of action for them would be cooked into a risotto. I'm very keen to try them after reading your findings.

mark
mark

As the article implies the venue serving the Chinese truffles may easily be unaware of the actual source. Also, it is well documented that purveyors often sell false flag fishies and the venue is many times unaware of that.

pencil
pencil

I prefer shit on the shingle

mark
mark

The article implies that the gnocchi dish listed black truffles as an ingredient. Incorrect?

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

You likely prefer truffle salt because some are made with the pealing and shavings of real truffles. Truffle oil on the other hand is made from a chemical synthetic. It's not digestible, and it doesn't taste good.

Also I'm sure your french truffle experiences were the best you'll ever have. With a 5 day shelf life you want to eat truffles as close to the source as possible.

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

Cultivated truffles in Tennessee and even Oregon have had limited success. Terroir does matter. French and Italian truffles have the most stink. And they command the highest prices.

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

 Heated to maximize it. You can shave a black truffle over a hot finished dish and get some fragrance, but only if that truffle is really fresh.

Kergo 1 Spaceship
Kergo 1 Spaceship

Really?  The first question of said product(s) would be, "why so cheap?".   Come on, people aren't that dumb.  Resty's that run this scam aren't ill informed, they are greedy; AND deceptive.  

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

Black truffles were listed as an ingredient only with the tartare. They are not listed as an ingredient in the gnocchi dish.

amy
amy

So, I buy La Tourangelle black truffle oil, and they claim that it is produced with a black truffle essence - is this "chemical synthetic" that you talk about even derived from truffle? If La Tourangelle is lying to me imma flip my lid. 

mark
mark

Well, it isn't necessarily sold any cheaper than the real deal. The supplier may cut 30% Chinese truffles into 70% legit truffles just to save some money on his end. That doesn't mean he's going to pass it on to the buyer. As for the fish, I believe Red Snapper is the most common mislabeled fish. For example, a restaurant has Red Snapper on the menu. They buy all of their fish from a large distributor that sources from all over the world i.e. Seafood Supply Co. in Dallas. There is a fish processing plant in Indonesia that sells frozen filets of Red Snapper to Seafood Supply Co. in Dallas. Seafood Supply Co. sells and delivers the filets to said restaurant. The processor in Indonesia also processes Tilapia. The fish market skyrockets. Indonesian processor labels a box of Tilapia as Red Snapper, sells it to Seafood Supply Co. Naturally, it's inspected as all food that enters the U.S. is. Especially with all the Homeland Security Funding. Unfortunately, someone forgets to run a DNA test on this specific case. Normally they run DNA tests on every single case that comes in, but some guy didn't have his coffee on this specific day. Restaurant sells Tilapia labeled as Red Snapper. You paid for Red Snapper, restaurant paid for Red Snapper, Seafood Supply Co. paid for Red Snapper, Indonesian processor paid for Tilapia. You ate Tilapia. I'm not saying this is the cause every time. Often restaurants are the ones mislabeling product for a quick buck. However, it's not as simple as you seem to think. As with most issues there is a lot of grey here. The blame falls like rain, not bombs.

mark
mark

Ah, thanks for clarifying. However, I feel I must:

"in a gnocchi dish and in beef-heart tartare" "But in the finished dishes, they were odorless."

No hard feelings?

Bev Garvin
Bev Garvin

I too have had the Beef Heart Tartare at Campo a couple of times.  I took a snapshot of the menu and it reads: "Beef Tartare - dry aged spinalis, black trumpet, yolk, smoked apple cider, sorrel, mustard" the dish was good, but black truffles wouldn't make sense in that dish.  They would compete and overpower the subtle flavor of the lovely and rare meat.

I've only had "real" black truffles a few times and you're right, they are unbelievable, distinct and unforgettable.

I do love this article though, great info on a topic that more people should know about.   

amy
amy

Well hot damn. How did I miss this?! Internet, you have failed me.

Either way, is it passe to admit that I still sort of like a little drizzle of truffle oil?

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

Black truffle essence is not black truffles. On La Tourangelle's website, they call it black truffle extract. The thing is, there's no rules governing this shit. They can call it whatever they want. Most of the time a chemist will call it 2,4-dithiapentane.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05...

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