Back to (Périgord) Black

October 29, 2012 /

In these heady times of truffle oil fries and truffle salt gift boxes, Americans are more familiar than ever with this luxury food… or are they?

Most truffle-flavored products actually contain NO real truffles at all, relying instead on synthetic truffle aromas created in the laboratory to mimic the sensual allure of the real thing.  You wouldn’t know this from their prices, of course, but the sulphurous stench and acrid finish most frequently gives these imposters away.

The few products that are made with “real truffles” typically contain Chinese truffles (Tuber sinensis, Tuber himalayensis or Tuber indicum), smaller species of black truffles that are plentifully available at a tiny fraction of the cost of Périgord blacks (Tuber melanosporum).  Products containing Chinese truffles (or any of the other numerous species of inexpensive truffles that are dark in color) usually list their ingredient simply as “black truffles,” and are priced without regard to this discount.

If all truffles and synthetic truffle aromas were created equal, this wouldn’t matter so much.  But — surprise!  There is a pretty significant difference besides the price ($20-30/pound for Chinese truffles; $1000/pound for Périgord blacks).   Though the Chinese truffle looks very much like the Périgord black, it has more rubbery flesh and a much less pronounced aroma and flavor.  Frequently products made with Chinese truffles will be “enhanced” with synthetic truffle aromas to make them seem more like a Périgord black.

Do not be fooled.  The mysteriously musky, sensual, and slightly sweet aroma of the Périgord — and its rich, earthy taste — set it apart.  This addictive intensity, and the fact that they must be “hunted” using trained dogs during their 4-5 month season of maturity, is why fresh Périgord black truffles bring in the big bucks every winter.  No other black truffle can touch them.  Though America’s own Oregon black truffles (Leucangium carthusianum) have a loyal following, they too lack the inimitable, sexy funk of the Périgord black.

Unfortunately, the window of ideal ripeness for fresh truffles is very short — only about a week after they are harvested — and their powers of seduction quickly fade after that point.  Even more unfortunately, the world’s supply of Périgord blacks seems to be dwindling….  According to Alastair Bland writing for the Smithsonian, the annual harvest hovered around 1,200 tons in 1900, but has since declined to only 100 tons each year… even though modern scientific methods have been successfully supplementing the naturally occurring truffle crop for decades.

The American Truffle Company, which sponsors the Napa Truffle Festival, is working hard to battle this sad decline of Brillat-Savarin’s beloved “black diamonds.”  ATC partners with would-be truffle farmers to help them create ideal growing conditions for Périgord blacks, as well as the slightly less expensive but still remarkable Burgundy truffles (Tuber aestivum/uncinatum).  Since Northern California’s wine country has truffle-favorable weather, world-class chefs, and a great local beverage for washing down truffly feasts, Napa Valley was the logical choice for a festival celebrating both the magic and the science of the Périgord black.

Tickets are now on sale for the January 2013 Festival!  Visit the event website for full details on the ticket packages and availability.