The Truth About Truffle Products
Why don’t we sell ‘normal’ truffle products? Because they’re a complete con…
Almost all are made with an artificial truffle flavouring, which ruins your appreciation of the wonderfully complex natural flavour and aroma of real truffles.
Truffles have a very subtle flavour, yet one that is utterly wonderful when you come to know and appreciate it. They can add a seductive earthy umami to other flavours, often creating something very special that is greater than the sum of its parts. You may not always actively notice it as truffle, but if the truffle were removed you would notice immediately that the dish or product has lost its magic.
The problem is that fake truffle products have changed general perceptions of how truffle actually tastes. They are very overpowering – assaulting your tastebuds in a bad way, leaving an unpleasant lingering aftertaste which gets worse the more often you experience it. Even when only consumed occasionally in tiny quantities, this artificial truffle flavouring can limit your future ability to taste and appreciate real truffles.
The main chemical generally used in truffle products – 2,4 dithiapentane, derived from formaldehyde – is an artificially created version of one of the many flavour components in fresh truffles. But if you eat fresh truffles regularly, you’ll know that it is like comparing a cheap artificial wine gum sweet to a bottle of Burgundy.
The crazy thing is that trading standards law seems to allow this man-made chemical to be described as either ‘aroma’ or ‘truffle flavour’. To me this is totally wrong. The word ‘aroma’ sounds natural and lovely – it just means ‘smell’ of course – so its use here is clearly misleading. Meanwhile I cannot understand why ‘truffle flavour’ doesn’t have to be called ‘artificial truffle flavour’ – as it in no way comes from a real truffle. I guess it’s like the way that ‘chocolate flavour’ biscuits contain no actual chocolate – most consumers are aware of this, but many still seem less aware that ‘truffle flavour’ products are not natural.
Have a look at the ingredients list of any truffle product on the shelf in the supermarket or delicatessen, or on the websites of truffle product companies – you will always see the words ‘truffle flavour’, ‘flavouring’ or ‘aroma’ on the list of ingredients. Occasionally you will also see the words ‘natural truffle flavouring’, but ‘natural’ does not mean that the flavouring came from a truffle – merely that the chemical used was originally derived from any plant or animal source.
Of course, truffle products do sometimes contain real truffle as well – but this is where the trick gets even worse. These truffles will usually be contributing no flavour whatsoever – they are simply there so that the marketing for the product can say “made with real truffles”. If you took away the artificial chemicals, there would be little to zero taste of actual truffles in the product.
Truffle products aimed at home users are almost invariably made with the cheapest and least prized varieties of truffles. This is based on the fact that most buyers won’t really know which truffle variety is which, and since the truffles are being put in the product just for marketing rather than flavour, there’s no point in using the more prized varieties, as it would hugely increase the price with no real benefit. They are relying entirely on the fact that the general public won’t know the Latin names so will assume that the product contains the more expensive and famous varieties.
I saw one ‘white truffle butter’ that contained “5% white truffles”. However, these were Spring White truffles (tuber borchii) – a relatively cheap and less known variety that very few home users will ever have heard of or tasted fresh – rather than ‘proper’ white truffles (tuber magnatum pico) which is what everyone thinks of when white truffles are discussed. Tuber borchii have a unique mild, garlicky and slightly gassy flavour – they’re quite nice in a way, but no respectable chef would ever call them “white truffles” on a menu, for fear of misleading diners. Of course, this distinctive and unusual flavour cannot be detected at all in the finished product. Instead the butter also contains artificial ‘white truffle flavour’ – so tastes of an unpleasant and cloying chemical version of proper white truffles – proving beyond doubt that the actual truffles contained in the butter are pretty much tasteless in the finished product.
Black truffle products are normally made with the cheapest and most tasteless variety of all – black summer truffles (tuber aestivum). Later in the season summer truffles start to develop a pleasant – but still fairly mild – mushroomy flavour. For most of their season they are almost completely without taste or aroma – you might as well grate cardboard onto your food – they’re used for appearance only. This – together with their very low price – makes them perfect for use in truffle products, where they can just make up the numbers so the product can be marketed as containing real truffles, with all flavour and aroma being entirely artificial.
The simple fact, as everyone knows, is that proper truffles are expensive. This reflects their seasonality, rarity and how hard it is to either cultivate them or hunt them in the wild. If you’re buying a product that costs just a few pounds, it’s simply not possible that it could be flavoured with real truffle – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
You can’t take an expensive and precious ingredient, spend even more money processing it into something else, and then sell it for a fraction of the cost – it just doesn’t add up. Even worse – some fake products are given a higher price just to trick the consumer into thinking they’re getting something authentic; I saw one artificially flavoured truffle oil on sale in a famous London store for over £100 per 250ml bottle – the profit margin on these must be enormous.
You need to use a lot of top quality fresh truffle to get any flavour at all in most products. And even then the flavour would be relatively mild, therefore not appreciated by those used to the intensely flavoured, mass produced, artificial products. Fresh truffles have a delicate flavour and need to be used at their very freshest and very best, in generous quantities and on the correct dish, to appreciate them.
Truffles are also extremely volatile and vary hugely in intensity and flavour, needing to be very carefully sourced and looked after to get the best out of them. They’re certainly not suitable to be used in the industrial manufacture of long life home user products.
Occasionally truffle products may contain a tiny quantity of the best truffle varieties in them – tuber melanosporum or tuber magnatum pico. However, these will usually have been totally sterilized, killing off all the life and flavour they had when fresh, and making them completely and utterly tasteless.
This is for two reasons – firstly, food safety. That little bit of ‘real truffle’ you see floating in the bottom of your truffle oil? It wouldn’t be permitted to have it there in an ambient storage product if it hadn’t been pasteurized – products containing fresh truffles have a shorter shelf life and must be refrigerated. Leaving a raw fungus for a long time in an oil is unsafe and could cause botulism, amongst other things. Therefore, it has had all its life boiled out of it and is there just for show. All the flavour in the oil is artificial.
Secondly, the real flavour in black winter truffles is often removed before their use in truffle products, to make a very different and this time actually authentic truffle product – truffle juice. This is a product made generally just for professional chefs – it is usually 100% natural. And the reason it is aimed only at chefs? Because in order to make a product with the deep natural flavour of real truffles, it becomes prohibitively expensive for home users, who are used to the artificially flavoured stuff at a fraction of the price.
The process of manufacturing finest quality truffle juice involves gently simmering fresh, ripe black truffles in salted water and then straining them. The resulting liquid is jet black and has almost all of the flavour of the fresh truffles locked within it. This is then canned and can be used to add the real taste of pure tuber melanosporum – black winter truffles – to dishes all year round.
What happens to the remaining truffles once the juice is strained off? Well they have had almost all their flavour transferred into the amazing juice and are now almost tasteless…. but they’re still technically speaking real truffles and can be described as such on ingredient lists. Therefore, you’ve guessed it, they can be sold off cheap and added to cheaper truffle products (e.g. some truffle pastes) which now contain ‘real black winter truffles – tuber melanosporum’ – despite the truffles having had all the flavour removed, with all the actual flavour found in the product being totally man-made.
Fresh white truffles should never be used for truffle products. They are far too delicate and precious, also they also have very little actual taste to them – they are prized entirely for their wonderful and intense aroma. They’re very expensive of course, but when at their best they’re worth every penny – even if you can only afford to eat them once a year, or even once in a lifetime, then do it – it’s the only way to experience the true magic of white truffles. All truffle oils – even the most expensive ones – are fake.
My advice – avoid all standard home user truffle products. Instead, seek out a small artisan producer that makes small batches of hand made real truffle products, avoiding all artificial chemical flavouring. Even better – make your own. If you buy top quality very fresh black truffles you can make delicious sauces, pâté, cheese, butter, ice cream, salt, paste and many other things. They will be expensive, have a short shelf life and will be much less overpowering than the artificially flavoured stuff – but will be infinitely more complex, delicious, satisfying and rewarding.
Some more reading on the subject: