Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles


A TRUFFLE by any other name may smell as sweet, but what if that name is 2,4-dithiapentane? All across the country, in restaurants great and small, the “truffle” flavor advertised on menus is increasingly being supplied by truffle oil. What those menus don’t say is that, unlike real truffles, the aroma of truffle oil is not born in the earth. Most commercial truffle oils are concocted by mixing olive oil with one or more compounds like 2,4-dithiapentane (the most prominent of the hundreds of aromatic molecules that make the flavor of white truffles so exciting) that have been created in a laboratory; their one-dimensional flavor is also changing common understanding of how a truffle should taste.

When I discovered truffle oil as a chef in the late 1990’s, I was thrilled. So much flavor, so little expense. I suppose I could have given some thought to how an ingredient that cost $60 an ounce or more could be captured so expressively in an oil that sold for a dollar an ounce. I might have wondered why the price of the oils didn’t fluctuate along with the price of real truffles; why the oils of white and black truffles cost the same, when white truffles themselves were more than twice as expensive as black; or why the quality of oils didn’t vary from year to year like the natural ingredients. But I didn’t. Instead I happily used truffle oil for several years (even, embarrassingly, recommending it in a cookbook), until finally a friend cornered me at a farmers’ market to explain what I had should have known all along. I glumly pulled all my truffle oil from the restaurant shelves and traded it to a restaurant down the street for some local olive oil.

That truffle oil is chemically enhanced is not news. It has been common knowledge among most chefs for some time, and in 2003 Jeffrey Steingarten wrote an article in Vogue about the artificiality of the oils that by all rights should have shorn the industry of its “natural” fig leaf. Instead, the use of truffle oil continued apace. The question is, Why are so many chefs at all price points — who wouldn’t dream of using vanillin instead of vanilla bean and who source their organic baby vegetables and humanely raised meats with exquisite care — using a synthetic flavoring agent?

Part of the answer is that, even now, you will find chefs who are surprised to hear that truffle oil does not actually come from real truffles. “I thought that it was made from dried bits and pieces of truffles steeped in olive oil,” said Vincent Nargi of Cafe Cluny in Manhattan, which made me put down my pen and scratch my head. The flavor of real truffles, especially black, is evanescent, difficult to capture in an oil under the best of circumstances.

But, much as I did for years, chefs want to believe. Stories of sightings of natural truffle oil abound, like a gourmand’s answer to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. One chef told me in an excited, slightly conspiratorial tone that Jing Tio of Le Sanctuaire in Santa Monica, Calif., who sells high-quality specialty ingredients to chefs, mixed his own oil to order.

Read the entire story in the New York Times

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