Prized Ingredient: Chefs and epicures look forward to the winter truffle season

By mid-September, a hunt will be afoot in the forests of Italy – a hunt for the second-most-expensive food in the world: white truffles. Learned gastronome and aspiring restaurateur B. Poremba of St. Louis knows one of the tartufaie, or truffle hunters, who'll take part in it.

"[When a friend was a teenager,] his father was going to buy him a brand-new car and he said, 'No, I want you to buy me a truffle dog.'" The exceptional sniffer that Poremba's friend got goes by Tim, and the duo's stomping ground lies in northern Italy between Bologna and Modena in Emilia-Romagna. A lot of people associate truffle harvesting with the Piedmontese town of Alba, further to the west, because it's the site of the famed White Truffle Festival; but in fact the members of the country's association of truffle towns dot more than 20 locations in northern and central Italy.

Truffles look knobby, somewhat like potatoes, and belong to the Tuber genus (confusingly, some similar fungi from other genera are also called truffles, and the word "tuber" can be used to describe nearly any fleshy root or the thickened part of subterranean horizontal stems called rhizomes). But truffles don't taste or smell like potatoes. Not at all. They can be found in countries including the U.S., China, Turkey, Hungary, Croatia and Spain, though only those from France and Italy enjoy a consistently high reputation.

While hundreds of truffle varieties exist, the Tuber melanosporum (a black truffle harvested largely in the French area of Périgord) and the Tuber magnatum (the white winter truffle Tim will be tracking through December) are the most valued among the rough dozen considered viable for the plate. Edible truffles grow in the summer, fall and winter and can be white, black, grey, yellow or red. "[Truffles' color characteristics] mostly depend on what plants they conduct their symbiosis with," explained Poremba. Botanically speaking, all truffles are hypogenous fungi, which means they do not undergo photosynthesis and that their entire life cycle occurs about 1 foot underground.

Truffle dogs unearth their culinary treasures at the base of oaks, poplars, lindens, hazels, willows, etc.; many trees host the growth of multiple varieties, while most truffles are associated with more than one tree genus (and family). Tartufaie, who tend to guard secret harvesting spots the same way Italian chefs protect original recipes, usually hunt with their dogs under the cover of night.

Toward the close of last December, part of Tim's winter harvest traveled to St. Louis on dry ice after Poremba decided to wear the hat of truffle salesman and offer fresh truffles, some larger ones topping the scales at more than 100 grams, to local chefs. In the end, most restaurants turned him down. Poremba admitted to launching his door-to-door sales operation in the sunset weeks of the winter truffle season, but ultimately it was cost that limited his list of customers to an adventurous handful.

Pound for pound, caviar's the only food that carries a higher price tag than the Tuber magnatum. Last season, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of white truffles fetched up to about $4,000. The same amount of black truffles from Périgord costs $250 to $800. Prices vary depending on availability, but scarcity only accounts for part of a truffle's cost. A sexual mystique described in the ancient writings of Cicero, Pliny and Plutarch has made truffles sought-after even (or perhaps especially) in times when they were banned or obscure. Moreover, as an ingredient with an overwhelming aroma – "The smell stayed on my hands for days," said Poremba – as well as an idiosyncratic flavor, the truffle offers an organoleptic experience some call priceless.

Executive chef Lou Rook III, who keeps the kitchen at Annie Gunn's in Chesterfield stocked with top-grade seasonal ingredients, indicated that a pound of lowerquality summer black truffles from Italy (Tuber aestivum) costs considerably less – between $125 and $200. "There's the difference in decadence right there," he said. Rook, who described the aroma of the more expensive "killer whites" as "massive," bought white truffles from Poremba last December – eventually, not straight away.

"[Poremba] walked in off the street and he had this little cooler and we thought he was the mad bomber or something. He scared the [daylights] out of half the staff. ... Yeah, it was a really weird beginning," Rook recalled.

When Poremba stopped in a second time, he and Rook talked truffles. "He laid it out in front of me ... and it was the real deal. They were beautiful and they were fresh and they had great aroma and they weren't stale and they didn't have any slimy spots. They were super-dry and nice and hard and they weren't spongy. And he had a fair price," said Rook.

"Most of the time this is for the big boys [who] have a big clientele," said Ramon Cuffie, who worked with a pound of black and about 10 ounces of white truffles at La Dolce Via in The Grove. He served them with rabbit, fish, scallops, a Chioggia beet salad and omelets.

Truffles work best in simple dishes due to the audacity of their essence. "When you talk about truffles, you talk a lot about their essence, because their essence is ... a combination of their taste and their aroma," said Poremba.

When attempting to describe what they've tasted, truffle initiates toss out words like "garlic," "yeast," "soil," "methane gas" and "honey." Descriptions of a truffle's scent tend to meander even more. "The aroma's like ... God ... uh ... robust ... hearty ... kind of a little bit of a garlic accent ... uh ... I mean, just amazing," gushed Rook. Cuffie made a tentative commitment to "earthy" and "musky" before suggesting that a truffle "smells like a woman." Essence, of course, varies not only from nose to nose and palate to palate, but also from truffle to truffle.

The potent intricacy of Italian and French truffles makes them hard to duplicate. As a result, cultivation projects such as those in Oregon and Tasmania have left the majority of food-lovers under impressed.

Both Rook and Cuffie took care to give diners a true experience of truffles, especially when it came to the prized Tuber magnatum, which loses its delicate essence if cooked. "I just don't feel that you should ever leave [a truffle experience] saying, 'Well, I didn't get it.' No one will get it [with one slice of winter white truffle], and I think you should put enough on there so that the person understands what they are," said Cuffie.

Taking a cue from the chefs he dined with last autumn in Alba, Rook likewise piled plates high with white truffle shavings. "What they do [during the White Truffle Festival] ... is, you literally walk into these restaurants and there are big beautiful vases filled with flowers and white truffles at the top of it. You just add them to any dish you want. ... My wife and I had truffles almost every day. And I told my wife, 'When I get back, no matter what we have to charge, within reason, that's how we're going to do it.' ... [And] that's what I did when I got back. I would come out or if I wasn't around, my sous chef would go out with a truffle shaver and we'd put a mountain of white truffles on your dish."

Later this month, Rook will again be serving black Périgords. Sometime in mid- or late October, he'll feature the prized Italian whites.

The truffle's reputation doesn't rest just on its indebtedness to the olfactory talents of a dog, which is to say on its rarity; it really knocks diners' socks off. Truffles are often mentioned in the same breath as foie gras, morel mushrooms and caviar. Rook put them in an even narrower category. "I'd have to say the two most decadent items I've ever cooked with are the truffle and the A5 Kobe [beef]. These things are just pristine, awesome products, [and] when you get an opportunity to work with them, it's something that makes your chefhood."