Magic mushrooms: The Irish connoisseurs who believe truffles are worth every penny
Rare white and black truffles are costly culinary luxuries - but connoisseurs believe they're worth every penny.
There are two types of people in this world, according to French novelist Jean-Louis Vaudoyer. There are those who think truffles are good because they are dear and those who know they are dear because they are good. Whatever category you fall into, truffles certainly are a costly luxury, with the prized wild white truffle priced at around €3,600 per kilo.
The white truffle is particularly prized for its pungency and rarity, with a season from November to January. Its cousin the black truffle is seasonal too, but more ubiquitous. Both are sought after by chefs and gastronomes worldwide. In 2014, a Chinese bidder dropped $61,250 at Sotheby's in New York for a giant white truffle.
"Truffles, particularly the white truffles of Alba, have an intensity of sweet heady aroma that is found in no other food," says Galway, Meath and Dublin based cheesmonger Kevin Sheridan, whose shops sell their own brand of truffle honey, especially made for them by the Vezzoso family in Alba, Italy (100g jar of €4.90). "Their rarity adds to their attraction and mystique."
But what are truffles? Bill O'Dea is an Irish mychophagist who leads mushroom hunts around Ireland (mushroomstuff.com) and a truffle fan.
"Truffles are the fruiting body of a mycelium funghi, and they have a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship with whatever tree or plant they have latched on to."
"Truffles are mythical in the kitchen," agrees Karl Whelan, Head Chef at Luna in Dublin, whose menu is scattered with shavings of truffles when it's in season, such as in a simple buttery spaghetti and black truffle dish.
"As a young chef, I worked in Paris and one of the restaurants I worked at created a big ceremony around the white truffles. They would carry the truffle to the table in a small box accompanied by a weighing scale, charging by the gram to slice the truffle over the food. Once the first person did this, the whole room would fill up with the perfume of the truffle and fellow diners would become intoxicated, asking for the truffles themselves."
"The flavour and smell is actually a gas given off by the truffle," explains O'Dea.
"In a natural truffle, the flavour only stays with it for three or four days. They have to be eaten fresh."
And what about the mass-produced bottles of supermarket truffle oil? It turns out this type of truffle oil is made from artificial flavouring. "The artificial truffle flavour can result in an overpowering product lacking the complexity of aroma and flavour that you get from the real deal," says Lucy Clarke, the mushroom specialist behind Cork based Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms.
When Clarke returned home to Co Cork with a few prized truffles from her trip to Alba, she started testing out new products that she might sell at her market at Mahon Point, Midleton and Cornmarket in Cork.
The flavour of a truffle is best described as earthy.
"It's a cross between garlic and mushrooms," says O'Dea, whose favourite way to eat them is to grate a few fine shavings of raw black truffle over scrambled eggs.
'Truffles are a great carrier of other flavours, and enhance other flavours, especially those of other roots like parsnips, potatoes or Jerusalem artichokes," says Whelan.
"The flavour seems to permeate through pedestrian flavours, taking them to a whole new place."
Back in Paris, Whelan once worked on a dish where the truffles were cooked in big thick slices. A slab of a large truffle would be sliced, then steamed en papillote alongside truffle juice and bone marrow. The juice and marrow were reduced into a sauce, the truffle slab eventually served with the sauce, leeks, béchamel sauce and croutons.
"That was bonkers good," reminisces Whelan. This was a starter, and was priced at €120 per plate.
When Clarke returned home to Co Cork with a few prized truffles from her trip to Alba, she started testing out new products that she might sell at her market stalls at Mahon Point, Midleton and Cornmarket in Cork.
"I experimented with both white and black truffles in oil, vinegar, and also butter. The oil lost its aroma and flavour very quickly, but the truffle butters were a real hit at the market and delighted the taste buds of many of my customers."
It is an expensive year for the truffle market but, because of their status in the culinary world, wild white truffles will always be expensive.
The price fluctuates based on supply and demand. "They are traded like gold or any other commodity," says Whelan. "I don't think truffles ever go out of fashion."
Though the wild white truffle from Alba in Italy is the most prized, they are also found in Croatia and Greece. "At the moment we bring in all the truffles we use at Luna from Italy," says Whelan.
"I'm looking to get some from Croatia. It's the same product, just a different price, which would allow us to make it more accessible, pricewise, for our customers."
And what about closer to home?
"Black truffles grow all over Ireland," says O'Dea. "I'm aware of them growing naturally in Longford, Kerry, Tipperary and Port Laoise. They grow anywhere that mushrooms grow."
The roots of hazel trees provide a happy home for truffles. O'Dea sells sapling hazelnut trees inoculated with indigenous Irish truffles ready to be planted in your back garden. Known as truffle trees, these trees promise to yield within three to four years of planting, with the added bonus of hazelnuts.
The trees cost €27 (plus €5 for shipping) and can be bought online, in time for Christmas, at mushroomstuff.com.