The Joy of Truffles

A most erotic mushroom.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

According to one historian of erotica, the word “erotic” in the sexual rather than the amorous sense was first used by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825 in his gastronomic classic, The Physiology of Taste. The truffle, he said, is an “erotique” fungus. It arouses what he called “genesic” pleasures. He meant that truffles stimulate the performance of one’s reproductive duty. To illustrate his point he tells the story of a young woman who, while her husband is away, shares a truffled fowl with her husband’s best friend, “a handsome young man of some wit.” After dinner the wife is so overcome with the desire to reproduce that her virtue barely survives. Feeling awful the next day, she blames her near disgrace on the truffle. Brillat-Savarin, eager to defend his thesis, believes her, or pretends to.

My own experience does not support this aphrodisiac theory. As a rule, it’s the truffle I want, not the people I’m sharing it with. Brillat-Savarin was a moralist who lived in a mechanistic age. For him, every action presupposed a reaction and appropriate moral consequences. A woman eats a truffle, ergo she wants a child and nearly becomes an adulteress. In the world of Brillat-Savarin, living organisms stripped of their incidental forms were reproductive machines stoked by alimentary systems, governed by the senses and an inner moral compass. The purpose of a truffle was to make babies. The purpose of a baby was to make another baby.

Today we are wiser. We know that life is only undifferentiated aggression, the random pursuit of gratification clothed in transparent rationalizations. We depend on armed guards and lawyers to keep us from obliterating one another, not moral philosophers or ethical impulses. Today no sane person would claim that a truffle, or for that matter a Krispy Kreme doughnut, is anything but a treat for those with the power to seize one.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

The closest I have come to being eroticized by a truffle was at the start of Christmas week in Italy a dozen or so years ago, when I was driving from Milan to Venice with a friend. We decided to stop for lunch in Verona and parked near the Piazza del Herbe, Verona’s main square, where there was a sumptuous green market that featured at that time of year irresistible baskets of late-season white truffles from the Piedmont (the season runs roughly from November through Christmas). This display lured us to the Twelve Apostles, Verona’s famous restaurant, where each of us ordered the seasonal specialty, a simple tart made of a mild cheese custard with a dash of nutmeg and dense with shaved and crumbled truffles set in a fragile pastry, in effect an unsweetened truffle cheesecake. Had our itinerary not demanded that I subdue the ancillary passions aroused by this exquisite dish, I might today be more open to Brillat-Savarin’s thesis, for the tart provided an experience so poignant that even now, years later, its memory overwhelms me with polymorphous desire.

The white truffles of the Piedmont, which currently sell for as much as $1,300 a pound, wholesale, are far superior to the black truffles from the Perigord, over which Brillat-Savarin’s errant couple nearly lost their virtue. Black truffles lack profundity and at best are only mildly pungent. They should be stewed in melted pork fat or foie gras, sliced thin, and placed with a little salt beneath the skin of a young fowl, which is then poached or gently roasted, preferably in clay or en croûte. Another method is to wrap them in unsmoked, parboiled bacon; wrap both bacon and truffle in foil; and roast them in wood embers. Timing is crucial. They should be left on the fire long enough for the bacon fat to melt and the truffle to be heated through. If they are left too long in the embers they become embers themselves. Otherwise, they are removed from the ashes and served whole with a simple red Burgundy. Whatever flavor the black truffle may have had to begin with will be intensified by this method. Black truffles may also be served in salads or with scrambled eggs. Their texture, if nothing else, makes them a good foil for sea scallops. Elizabeth David, the great English cookery writer, suggests that they be left overnight in a basket of fresh eggs, which are then lightly boiled the next morning. Before Vanel closed his delightful restaurant of the same name in Toulouse, he served them in an omelet combined with foie gras and cèpes. Tinned black truffles are flavorless and should be avoided.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

On the other hand, white truffles at their best impart the full essence of the rotting soil surrounding the oaks from which they are dug, as good oysters and caviar impart the amniotic flavor of the sea. To be in the presence of an excellent specimen is to know the joy that moles and earthworms must feel as they take their meals. The intensity of white truffles is inconsistent and fleeting. Hold one to your nose. Only if the pungency is unmistakable and the texture is firm should you buy it. Do the same in restaurants and observe an additional precaution: Because the availability of truffles is unpredictable they are seldom listed on the printed menu. If the waiter offers them as a special, ask the price. Then you will not be shocked when the bill comes.

The virtue of the truffle is the flavor it imparts to other dishes: Think of it as perfume, best appreciated when applied to something else. To serve a truffle at home, it is essential to have a truffle cutter with a scalloped and serrated blade, an inexpensive purchase compared to the truffle itself. Truffles will keep their freshness for a week or so, wrapped in newspaper or paper towels and stored in a covered container filled with rice. They must not be peeled but should be dusted with a soft brush before they are shaved as thin as possible over such bland but well-textured conveyances as baked potato mashed in sweet butter and returned to its shell, or risotto with a little grated parmesan, or noodles in parmesan and cream. If you happen to find a truly explosive specimen, serve it over a salad of mâche, or field greens, dressed with a little lemon juice and sea salt.

Whatever you do, never attempt to cook a white truffle. They are always eaten raw. Since truffles are seldom of uniform intensity a useful enhancement is a bottle of truffle oil, at $50 or so for 8 ounces. This should be added generously to whatever starch you choose. A risotto or a fine baked potato laced with sweet butter, plenty of truffle oil, and a little sea salt under a blanket of shaved truffle is a shameful extravagance and probably an insult to the vascular system, but as ancient hedonist Aristippus, who was not troubled by Brillat-Savarin’s sense of duty, might have said, “What the hell. The Dow is up. Go for it.”