Umberto Eco, in his masterpiece Il Nome Della Rosa (The Name of the Rose, Harcourt 1983 for the English language version) mostly know by mere mortals from the eponymous film (1986), starring Sean Connery as Sir Guillaume of Baskerville, and a young Christian Slater as Adso the novice monk), presents the truffle as a fruit (black or white with the latter supposedly having a more powerful flavour), found in open-forest and particularly seen in the Benedictine terroir which is where the novel takes place. Umberto makes one of the abbey monks say that it is a pain in the arse to find — granted the monk, Severinus is well named, master herbalist of the abbey, uses a less flowery language — because truffles hide underground, more secrete than a typical mushroom, so that only a select few, by God of course, and animals with a prodigious sense of smell, can detect it. And these godly creatures are, yes, pigs. The main problem is described as being how to restrain said pigs when they smell out a truffle, for they instantly want to devour it. Adso, as the narrator, then proceeds to recall a later memory describing the lengths some gentlemen, captivated by this rare treat, would go to hunt truffles. Much as they would hunt fine game, following pigs as they would have followed carefuly bred hunting hounds. Funnily enough he makes a joke because of the similarity of sound between “truffle,” “el tar-toufo” in Italian and “der Teufel” in German, meaning, well, the Devil… I cannot recommend enough reading that book.
And indeed, truffles, “les truffes” in French, whatever their colour is (opinion, and prices, vary on that matter), are a delicacy that some people are ready to go to some length to savour. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, famous French gastronome from the 18th century called them “le diamand de la cuisine” (the diamond of the kitchen) and who am I to disagree? I recently got my hands on some grams of truffles and enjoyed some recipes, part of my grand plan to extract myself from society and live in a small cabin in the mountains for some time … To be fair, my mom and dad did the buying though we all did the cooking, and of course the eating.
We bought about 50 grams as prices that day were 1000 euros per kilogram at the market (it could reach up to 4000 euros per kilogram at a retailer’s shop). For American and English readers, that’s a lot of money per ounce, pound or stone or whatnot. The dictionary says: “a unit of one-twelfth of a pound troy or apothecaries’ measure, equal to 480 grains (approximately 31 grams)” so you can do the math. Heh.
Ok, let’s stop feuding and talk about truffles instead. One should technically call it “tuber melanosporum” but we’ll stick to truffle. It is a mushroom, a real one, only it flowers underground, from one to fifteen centimetres (a couple of inches, dammit!) Anyhow, the mushroom lives at the foot and amongst the roots of certain trees: oaks and hazels. Actually truffles live in symbiosis with the trees. And that is a problem for truffle gatherers, because they need “something” to tell them where to dig. This something, as stated in the introduction in accordance to Umberto, is the legendary nose of a hog. However, even if truffle hogs are naturally able to detect the truffle, they also have the tendency to be quite uncontrollable and they almost live to eat them fungi! Therefore nowadays people train dogs, and some of the older people in the business apparently prefer to use a specific fly (Suillia Gigantea or Suillia Fuscicornis). One might ask oneself why the pigs (and particularly the sow) are so attracted to the smell of truffle. Well, there are rumours stating that the smell of truffles is quite similar to the smell of boar’s saliva, which is a very strong sex pheromone for the female pig. What does it say about us being so keen on eating these things due to their strong flavour? I prefer not to mull to much over it.
So. We got the truffles. Now we want to eat them!
The two recipes we did are the following, a pretty simple one and a more elaborate one. One evening we made scrambled eggs with truffles (“brouillade aux truffes” in the dialect of Southern France where I happen to be living now), one cannot really get simpler. Then, the next day, salad of luke-warm lentils and soft-boiled egg with truffles (“Salade de lentilles tièdes aux oeufs mollets et aux truffes”) which turned out to be fancier but actually less enjoyable …
Lets start with the complicated one (for 4 people):
- 250g of lentils “du Puy” (that’s the green ones)
- 50g of black truffle, if possible fresh (i.e. not from the freezer, nor dried)
- eight quail eggs
- a soup spoon of white vinegar, one of Xeres’ vinegar, three of sunflower oil
- some thyme, laurel, two small shallots, some chives and persil
- one carrot
- a coffee spoon of mustard (Dijon of course!)
- salt and pepper
First you have to cook the lentils as usual, with no preliminary soaking, in 3 times their volume in water, with the diced carrot, laurel and thyme. They should not be overcooked, but keep a bit of a crunch, though not too much. Man, that sounds like one of my grand-ma’s recipes: “cook it just enough, not too much, well, you’ll see …”
While that is happening you can soft boil the eggs. Here I have to say that I’d use regular hen’s eggs, not these damned quail eggs, as they are a pain to have soft-boiled and honestly I do not think that the taste difference would be very strong, so just get eggs on the small side. And indeed we didn’t manage to get them soft-boiled but nicely done (as can be seen in the pictures) but it was another pain to peel them. Quail’s eggs are for snobbish posh people, French up-nosed bastards, period.
When the lentils are done they should be mixed with a dressing whisked together out of the remaining ingredients on the list.
Finally the truffles, thinly sliced or shaved, should be spread over the eggs which should have been cut in halves so that the yolk can flow down over the lentils. For a nice presentation it is recommended to make some sort of a nest with the lentil salad.
Well, it was not that great!
I mean, do not get me wrong, it looked nice and all, the lentils salad is delicious, eggs were good (if not soft-boiled), and the truffles were tasty. However, the savour of the truffles was a bit lost amongst the rest and I sort of feel it was a waste. That’s up to you I guess …
Anyhow, for the easy one it is, well, fairly easy: you crack open the eggs, mix them, and let the truffles soak in the egg mixture for a while. Then you cook them in a pot (not a pan!), with plenty of butter, but take good care of using a fork to prevent the mixture from transforming into a tortilla! A bit of crème fraîche mixed with it can help to make it smooth. Some people say that the trick is to have the truffles sit with the eggs before, like, in the same box, like, overnight, like, so they can mingle. They will all have a nice chat, maybe some will get horny and rub against one another, hopefully not of the same gender, and at the end the eggs will smell like truffle! Pretty amazing, huh?! One has to admit the thing has quite a powerful smell. And, to my disbelief, the eggs indeed smell, if faintly, of truffle even if the shells were still in pristine condition while the rubbing took place. I was baffled, to say the least.
So this was my experience with truffles, I thank you for your attention and will let you find a pig, some flies or train a dog and go hunt some of your own. If you are an adventurous scientist type you can have a look at the genome of a Perigord black truffle, which was released in 2010. And without further ado I say Au revoir.