The subject line of Shake Shack's email was unequivocal: "TRUFFLES FOR ALL." The Danny Meyer fine-casual chain was touting its latest seasonal offering, the Black Truffle Burger, with 100-percent Angus beef, melted Gruyère, crispy shallots, "and our real black truffle sauce, not fake 'flavoring,'" for a mere $8.89.
This prompts two questions: How do we distinguish between real and fake truffle flavoring? And how can such a high-end commodity be had for cheap? Everywhere you look, there are truffles to be had: "Add a little luxury to your life guilt free," Live Love Pop's truffle salt popcorn assures us, while Kettle Brand potato chips touts a Truffle & Sea Salt variety as its "Bougiest chip yet."
To help us make sense of all this, Rowan Jacobsen has written Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World's Most Seductive Scent with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs. With just one sniff of an Italian white truffle, he was hooked. "My world exploded," writes the James Beard Award-winning author. And although he says "no words can do justice" in describing the scent, he does give it a try: "It was more like catching a glimpse of a satyr prancing across the dining room floor while playing its flute and flashing its hindquarters at you." That's one way to put it.
What has Jacobsen so transfixed is an organism akin to a mushroom, "fruiting bodies of subterranean fungi that live their lives in the soil as rootlike filaments attached to tree roots." Except that truffles remain underground, thus requiring the assistance of a pig or a dog, whose sense of smell far exceeds a human's. Dogs are preferable because pigs tend to devour what they find. As the author notes, "Stories abound of nine-fingered truffle hunters."
It may be worth the loss of a finger. In 2007, a 3.3-pound white truffle was sold for $330,000 (to a casino mogul from Macau). And while most truffles go for less, even at $3,000 a pound it's nothing to sneeze at.
It's also best not to overhandle the truffle lest a piece break off, which can cost a seller hundreds of dollars in value. What Jacobsen learns is that although their scent is intoxicating, truffles are sold almost solely based on looks. "Nobody buys truffles based on smell," he writes. "Everyone wants smooth, round, golfball-sized truffles that they can shave tableside into perfect wafers for their big-spending clients."
Though truffles have been written about since the time of Plutarch, Jacobsen traces the latest truffle craze to the time of Oprah. "I'm a truffle freak," the Queen of All Media confessed in 2014. "I want to go to Alba and hunt with the pigs." This she did (but with dogs), courtesy of the Sabatino Tartufi truffle company. One of the products she fell in love with was Truffle Zest, which, the company maintains, is now "the best-selling truffle seasoning in the world."
Keep in mind the zest is made with black truffles, which are less expensive, more abundant, and more popular among chefs than the whites. The black Périgord "rules the roost," says Jacobsen. "It's the French truffle, mainstay of haute cuisine." But what he discovers is that black truffles (which include varieties like summer and Burgundy) are increasingly found outside of France—in places like Spain, Australia, Oregon, and West Virginia. As a result, truffles can now be had year-round.
Truffle oil, however, is something else entirely. Added to everything from eggs to pizza to French fries, it is, in reality, "olive oil spiked with a synthetic chemical known as 2,4-dithiapentane," Jacobsen explains. It's how truffles can be had for cheap—because there are no actual truffles. Although 2,4-dithiapentane is a crucial compound found in the fungus, when singled out, it "gives a crude and heavy-handed impression of truffleness."
Chef John Melfi agrees. "I can't stand it," says the executive chef of Modena, a popular Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C. "Dumping it all over things and calling it truffle has got to be one of my least favorite things," he tells me on a recent visit. He prefers instead to make an aquarello risotto with truffle butter, Yellow Finn potatoes, leeks, Parmesan, chervil, and then, tableside, shaved black truffle. It's a plateful of heaven.
But what of the truffles themselves? Would my world explode with one sniff, as Jacobsen puts it? While I was interviewing Melfi, Troy Lambert-Zaffino of Urbani Truffles USA dropped by to share the week's offerings (Urbani is the largest purveyor of truffles in the world).
Troy opens his backpack and takes out a scale, giving the impression that a drug deal is about to go down. But then he unwraps a cloth containing a handful of small black Burgundy truffles. Their smell is musty but subtle, almost like an attic. Next to them is a white truffle from northern Italy, though not from Alba. It's slightly smaller than the palm of my hand and a bit misshapen—far from the golfball ideal.
Still, Melfi agrees to purchase the lot of them with the aim of having none left by the end of the weekend. "I do competitions with my servers," he says. "If anybody can sell me five orders of white truffles, any way, shape, or form, then I give them a dish." (He asks not to disclose the details of the sale, though from week to week the price can fluctuate from $1,650 a pound to $3,300, depending on supply and demand.)
Troy gives me permission to handle the white truffle and bring it up to my nose for a whiff. It was eye-opening. The first thing that came to my mind was roasted garlic. The aroma was rich and intense, unlike the Burgundies.
It's easy to see how Jacobsen became obsessed, and Truffle Hound is his love letter to this seductive tuber. Speaking of which, he cites the late Josh Ozersky, who described its scent as "a combination of newly plowed soil, fall rain, burrowing earthworms, and the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs." Diane Ackerman took it to the next level, referring to "the muskiness of a rumpled bed after an afternoon of love in the tropics."
Again, I smelled roasted garlic.
Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World's Most Seductive Scent with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs
by Rowan Jacobsen
Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $28