"Don't order anything with truffles," my friend said during a recent dinner at an upscale restaurant in town. "It's not truffle season any more. It won't be worth it."
I had, of course, heard the phrase "truffle season" before, particularly in reference to the expensive Alba white truffles, which achieve peak ripeness in October and November and are rarely served outside of those months. But when ordering truffles at a fancy restaurant, I rarely think about them in the same way that I might asparagus or green beans or berries. Truffles look like rocks and smell like an alluring mixture of mushrooms and earth. They're a fungus. How can they not be in season?
It seems that at least one variety of traditional European truffles (of which there are four) is "in season" every month of the year except March and April. So if you're seeing truffles on menus right now, chances are they're the last crop of the year, or they're frozen or preserved in oil.
White truffles, the cream of the crop if you will, are in season primarily in October and November. Like all truffles, they're harvested with the aid of truffle pigs or dogs who are trained to sniff out the pungent odor of the fungi and dig them up. Once they're unearthed, the quality of the flavor and the aroma begins to decrease exponentially. Most truffles have a five-to-seven-day shelf life, which can be increased slightly by refrigerating them.
Truffles should be stored only after they've been scrubbed with a brush under running water to remove excess dirt. Delectations, a blog devoted to truffles, notes that they can be frozen for as long as six months without losing much of their aroma, though they may soften a bit. Restaurants need to be sure that the truffles are stored in an absolutely airtight container, as any moisture will cause them to degrade.
Many restaurants store truffles in rice for the several days until they're used up. Rice mimics the natural habitat (aka dirt) to which truffles are accustomed, and helps keep them from rotting prematurely.
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Since most of the truffles we consume in fancy restaurants in the United States come from Europe, by the time they reach us here they have about three to five good days left. According to truffle dealer John Magazino, the weight of a truffle drops ten percent per day after they're dug up, primarily due to water loss. Because truffles are sold by weight, dealers want to get them to restaurants as quickly as possible to make the maximum profit.
An overripe truffle will begin to get soft and lose the aroma that contributes so much to its funky taste. If you're served a dish with overripe truffle at a restaurant, you may not know unless you can visibly see the truffle or unless the flavor is very mild. Most places will grate fresh truffles directly onto food, though, and it will be clear whether they're ripe during the grating process.
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Unripe truffles will not yet have achieved the texture or the fragrance that people generally associate with truffles. Animals specifically trained to dig up ripe truffles will generally ignore unripe ones, and people who harvest unripe ones are doing themselves no good, because once a truffle is removed from its natural habitat, so to speak, it loses its food source and ceases to develop.
After white truffle season ends around November, black truffles pick up the slack. They're in season from November through late February or early March. You might be hard pressed to find truly fresh truffles in American restaurants in March and April, but summer truffles are ripe for harvest from May through August, as the name suggests. Burgundy truffles, which are actually the same species as summer truffles and vary only based on region, pick up in September and are generally available through December.
Of course, white truffles and black truffles are the most sought-after and most commonly used. If you really want to reap the benefits of mother nature's tasty treat (and get your money's worth), wait until the season picks up again this October.
Until then, well, there's always crawfish, I guess.