The Pig's Nose Knows

For most of us, holiday cooking means turkey, ham or, if you're adventurous, goose. But for those with higher culinary aspiration -- and an ample dining budget -- 'tis the season to celebrate white truffle.

Imported from Italy and France and selling for $1,000 a pound, truffles are globular spores with a texture similar to mushrooms. They range in size from golf ball to tennis ball, the larger the tastier. Black truffles are truly black, but the slightly more costly white truffles are usually beige with a white interior.

Truffles have a pungent earthiness, like wild mushrooms, but that description sells them far short. To the truffle aficionado, they are the ultimate elixir, a few slivers transforming a simple dish into something profound. Some who love truffles consider them the soul of the earth. "In Italy they're called the treasures of the fog," says Efisio Farris, who cooks with them at his Galleria-area restaurant, Arcodoro (5000 Westheimer).

Truffles are served at Arcodoro and Tony's, and occasionally at other upper-echelon restaurants in Houston, from late September to early January. Truffle seekers are advised to call in advance to make sure this gastronomic treat is available.

"You can't keep truffles in stock every day," Farris says. "You want to buy them only when they're fresh and when the quality is good. This is a great year for truffles, because there's been a lot of humidity and fog in Piedmont and Umbria. But some weeks I'll call my supplier and he'll say, 'The truffles aren't good right now.' So he won't sell them to me."

Truffles are so intensely flavorful that even someone of infinite wealth would not eat a whole one by itself; it would overpower the palate. "I think the most important aspect of the truffle is that it's aromatic," says Tony Vallone, who has been serving truffles at his eponymous Post Oak restaurant since 1972. "It works really well with light dishes. I think No. 1 is risotto, and maybe No. 2 is capellini. I also like it with poached or scrambled eggs."

Consider, for example, ravioli stuffed with pumpkin in a white wine and butter sauce. It's a very pleasing pasta, available this time of year at the modest trattoria Fratelli's (10989 Northwest Freeway) for about $7. But at Tony's (1801 Post Oak Boulevard), chef Bruce McMillan anoints the pumpkin ravioli with a few shavings of truffle, and it becomes ethereal -- and expensive, at $75.

Is it worth it? Depends on your finances and your priorities. As British novelist Evelyn Waugh once said, "Give me the luxuries of life and I can do without some necessities."

Farris admits, "Truffles are not for everybody. It can be something you fall in love with right away, but some people don't get it at all. They think they're eating a potato for $50."

There's a limited demand for truffles here, given that many Americans are unaware of the delicacy's existence. But the supply is much more limited than the demand. In a typical year, Europe harvests between 200 and 500 tons of truffles.

The spores grow in very few parts of the world. They sprout, ten to 14 days after a heavy rain, near specific trees -- white oak, hazelnut, pine, Douglas fir, hickory, birch and beech -- that produce certain fungi. But you'll find them only if the temperature is right, special soil conditions are present, and squirrels or chipmunks have dispersed the spores through their digestive processes. Adding to their mysterious and otherworldly quality, truffles also require fog.

Truffles do grow in North America, but they're not of the same quality as those in France and Italy. "It's like Oregon porcini mushrooms," Vallone says. "They look like Italian porcinis, but they don't have the same flavor. There have been efforts to farm truffles, but they haven't been successful."

Contributing to the exorbitant price of truffles is the laborious process of harvesting them. Since they grow three or four inches below the earth's surface, animals with keen olfactory systems, such as dogs and pigs, must be trained to locate them. "Dogs work better than pigs," Vallone says. "It's hard to keep pigs from eating the truffles."

With a commodity this pricey, it's not surprising that scandals occur. Inferior truffles from Tibet and Yugoslavia have been smuggled into Italy and then exported as Italian. "We have to be careful who we buy them from," Farris says.

Truffles sometimes appear on menus during the summer. But while they may seem like a bargain, they lack the flavor of those harvested in fall and winter. Nor is it advisable to buy truffles preserved in jars. They've lost most of their potency. The home cook is not likely to find fresh truffles for sale in stores, except for "chocolate truffles," of which black truffle is an ingredient.

But there is a relatively affordable way to experience the mystical essence of the spores. A truffle oil, produced from white-truffle powder, is sold at Central Market and other specialty food stores for about $40 for a 100-milliliter bottle.

"It's still expensive, but all you have to do is sprinkle a little of it on a dish after cooking," Vallone says. "It's a way to enjoy truffle without having to see your banker."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Truex