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Truffle Oil: Chemicals Or Culture?

01/22/2016 02:27 EST | Updated 01/22/2017 05:12 EST
maria_esau via Getty Images
expensive rare black truffle mushroom - gourmet vegetable

If you use a truffle sauce at home you are using chemicals called dimethylsulfide and or bismetiltometano which are petrol chemical based and designed to replicate the smell and taste of truffles.

Unfortunately this also happens with almost all truffle oils, or if one eats in a restaurant hoping to economize. Any lower cost dish, which doesn't have fresh truffle grated onto it before your eyes, is most probably relying on these chemicals to make the truffle sensation.

Why do these sauces and oils continue to dominate the market? They are affordable and we have a taste for them. Anglo-Saxons are known to like a strong truffle sensation. It seems now many Italians are likewise.

Since these sauces are so prevalent, even Italians have become accustomed to this pronounced taste. Real, fresh truffles are usually more delicate. Sometimes the situation arises where the real thing is considered less pleasing for being less potent.

In Italy the culture of truffles spans millennia with recipes for eating truffles existing from Imperialist Rome. In early times truffles were a wild food only, normally found with the help of a pig. Although dogs are used today, the culture of truffles continues in parts of Italy like the Sibillini Mountains and represents the ultimate Slow Food cultural agenda. At least for the moment...

Roberto has to get up while it is dark, to avoid other people. He swiftly pulls clothing onto his athletic body and shoves his feet into his boots -- there's no time for slippers. He adds a few logs to the coals in the fireplace of this ancient mountain home. The flames crackle, lighting the hand cut beams supporting the ceiling, where each axe groove in the chestnut represents the determination of one of his forefathers. In this mountain home there is no computer and no television, by choice. Instead there is sense of place. Old lights from the 1930s or 40s have been carefully restored and rewired using the traditional cloth covered cord. The room abounds with relics be they ancient farming tools, oak furniture, or a collection of local terracotta bowls. Almost everything is handmade.

The only sound is the fire and stags calling in the distance, as Roberto finishes his breakfast. Sharing his dogs' sense of anticipation he puts on his pouch, heavy with Mortadella and Parmesan, strapping it around his waist. Over the years he has acquired the stamina of a marathon runner, except without stress for he moves calmly.

Bending down to pass through the portal of his ancestral home, he eagerly surveys the mountains in front of him, taking in every detail in the semi darkness. Outside on the tiny lane, more fit for mules than cars, his Fiat 500 'Topolino', lovingly restored by his father, is covered in frost. The dogs scamper ahead excitedly, in the frosty air.

Although privileged to have an historic home in a beautiful national park, as well as a shop opened by his grandfather in the village below, opting to be a custodian of his family's past, giving preference to the mountain culture and the old ways -comes with a personal price. Life in the city would have offered many more opportunities. But it wasn't a temptation -- because of his passion for the truffle culture.

'My passion is for truffles and for going into the mountains. As much as the pleasure in finding the truffles it's also really about the symbiosis with the dogs, and it fulfils my curiosity for learning,' Roberto tells me.

Working as a team with the dogs, immersed in silence and sublime scenery, he walks five hours in the mornings. As the first slanting beams of sunlight bound over hills and flush the eastern face of the mountains a bright pink, this lone silhouette can be spotted moving through misty trees. Yet with the recession more people have taken to looking for truffles, often unscrupulously. If he finds he is being followed or observed, he changes route constantly and walks yet further. Should he eventually arrive at a tree, only to find a person there, he avoids conflict and disappears into the woods. His truffle licence is paid for and up to date. Unfortunately others may come from another region, ruthlessly dig up the trees and harm other truffle hunters' dogs. Every year it is becoming more difficult.

Next he hurries to open the shop in town. Then in the afternoons he does another four or five hours. It's a lot of walking, but being used to open spaces and time to think, it becomes hard to go without. Almost every day is a sunny and the dogs need to work in the capacity they have been trained or they become slack. Likewise Roberto needs to know every tree, shrub and stone, in an increasingly wide area -- because of competition. Particularly nowadays to get a substantial harvest one has to be relentlessly dedicated.

At times the dogs press close to his legs because they smell wolves. Depending on the time of year vipers are a frequent peril in the leaves beneath the trees. In deep snow his dogs perform better because they're not distracted by other smells. Sometimes, Roberto relates, he can only see a wagging tail because the dog has dug so deep into the snow. With each find they are rewarded with Mortadella and Parmesan.

Meanwhile his phone is ringing. Sometimes people are waiting in front of the shop. Now the social time begins, selling, recounting adventures over a drink at the nearby bar....

The Monti Sibillini National Park authority www.sibillini.net writes that the presence of truffles are an indication of a healthy ecosystem, for they only grow spontaneously where the earth is pure and their natural habitat is undisturbed. The superlative quality of mountain water, with no contaminates, is an extra advantage.

With all heritage foods, if you buy direct from the producer, the product becomes more affordable -- certainly you get miles more for your money than eating in a restaurant! Same as organic vegetables these wild truffles are less uniform in shape than cultivated ones. Roberto sells a generous sized Black Truffle (Tuber melanosporum), a speciality of the Sibillini Mountains, for about 80 euro. Smaller ones cost less and taste just as good. They are simply less showy. You can contact him on info@casenelsilenzio.it (remember many Italians do things slowly...) and have your truffle sent by courier.

The average price this year in the Sibillini for truffle hunters for the Tuber melanosporum, is 800 euro per kilo.

Can we really prefer chemical concoctions instead of a high quality, cultural product harvested in mountains where conservation and environmental health are top priority, plus Slow Food values maintained?

While wild truffles and this ancient culture still exist -- lets abandon chemicals and have real pleasure.

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