Monday, December 3, 2007

Truffle Oil – Artificial Truffle Flavor

By Lourdes Castro

In a world where a 26-ounce white truffle goes for $208,000 at auction (three businessmen from Hong Kong purchased it for a private dinner last month), is it any wonder that a truffle knock-off would soon appear? Just like the coveted Hermes Birkin bag has to deal with difficult to detect phonies, an imposter – truffle oil – has marred the truffle.

Italian White Truffle Oil
2,4-dithiapentane. That’s what you are ingesting when you drizzle truffle oil on your dish. Actually, it’s the chemical mixed with olive oil. Not exactly yellow coloring #5, but not too far from an artificial sweetener ... it gives you the impression you are eating the real thing but at the end of the day you’ve just consumed a test tube version.

White truffles, native to northern Italy with the best coming from the Piedmont region, are considered the king of truffles. Most of its flavor is derived from its aroma and so they are never cooked – they are always served shaven and raw. It’s no wonder then that truffle oil is all about the aroma and is also drizzled “raw” over your dish.

I’m sure many of you have tasted truffle oil
– the intense aroma slapping you in the face before you even bring a fork near your mouth. Powerful but nothing like the real thing.

The real white truffle will produce aromas hard to put your finger on but will bring to mind a garlicky, cheesy, funky ... something. A flavor experience that for years was limited to a regional cuisine and those interested in tasting it had to make a trip to the truffle’s birthplace (truffles are really best consumed close to the area in which they were forested, as they start decomposing as soon as they leave the ground).
Gourmet History Made!

Saturday, December 1 will go down as a historic day in the truffle world. The largest truffle ever unearthed - a 1.5 kilogram beauty from Alba who now holds a world record - was auctioned off in London. Bidding was fierce with a war ensuing between artist Damien Hirst and Chinese gambling entrepreneur Stanley Ho. Mr. Ho eventually won amid huge applause with his final bid of 165,000 British Pounds (that's approximately $340,000).

British celebrity chef Giorgio Locatelli bid for Mr. Hirst who was on the beach near his home in Cornwall. Overdevelopment and pesticides in the truffle growing areas along with a warmer than normal summer contributed to the truffle's scarcity this year.

To put things in perspective, a kilo of truffle sells at Harrods for 5,500 pounds. The one at auction went for 110,000 pounds per kilo. All proceeds of the auction are going to charity.
Italian chef, Giorgio Locatelli, holds two white truffles which are to be auctioned at the Refettorio restaurant in London on December 1.
So why the LVMH-ization of truffles? Truffles are luxurious – they are not meant to be mass marketed. And yet, truffle oil exists at an enormous discount from real stuff with many never questioning the difference in price (an 8-ounce bottle of truffle oil sells for just under $20 – that’s less than $2/ounce). Most believe bits and pieces of the tuber are seeped in oil ... but don’t be fooled.

Lets remember a few things about the truffle. It’s an organic organism. As soon as it leaves the ground, its quality begins to take a downward turn.

Some chefs are fans because they are able to pack a truffle punch with just a few drops of the oil, and since they can never be sure of the truffle’s quality – especially since most of them have to do time at the JFK airport – they can combine a few drops with the real thing and be sure to satisfy their customers.

As of now there are no labeling requirements stating that the real ingredients making up truffle oil be listed. (Pick up a bottle and you will read “Truffle Oil” as the only ingredient.) And just to be clear, there is no risk or problem with the 2,4, dithiapentane – it’s just not the real thing. So buyer and menu reader beware!

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