What's the Deal with Truffles?

They're a kind of dense fungus that grows underground. They can only be found by specially trained dogs and pigs. They look like...well, not something you'd necessarily think of eating. And they're wildly expensive. Do you think truffles are really worth all the hype?
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Truffles have always been highly valued for their heady aroma and culinary value, but they weren't always so rare. Global demand, over-foraging, and environmental factors have created a scarcity that has driven their price through the roof and given truffles a reputation of high class luxury.

There are two main kinds of truffles that get all the attention: black truffles and white ones. Black truffles (melanosporum) grow in many places throughout Europe, most famously in the Périgord region in France. There has been some success farming black truffles, but it hasn't yet become a dependable or widespread practice. Peak harvesting is from September to March.

White truffles (magnatum Pico) tend to be more rare and therefore more expensive. They are nearly exclusive to Northern Italy and can only be found in the wild from October to December.

Black truffles have an earthy, pungent flavor and aroma that can be enhanced by gentle cooking. The white variety is said to have much stronger and more complex flavors and aromas, and they're usually served raw so as to experience all of them.

Here in the United States, home cooks don't often get their hands on real, whole truffles! However, we can get a taste of them through infused oils, butters, pastes, and powders. These products are fantastic in salad dressings, pasta and risotto, and egg dishes.

What experiences have you had with truffles or truffle products?

Related: Adopt a Truffle Tree: Gascony, France

(Images: Flickr members ulterior epicure and foodistablog licensed under Creative Commons)

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