Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Have you ever heard people getting excited about truffles? Have you tried one and then wondered what all the fuss was about? Well, the reason is because there are many different types of truffle. And there is a huge range: from the Terfez with its pungent aroma, often costing less than a bag of dates to the highly prized truffles of Piedmonte, retailing for around £90 per gram. Even more incredible is that most luxury truffle foods such as truffle oil have never even come into contact with a truffle of any kind. So read on to find out about some of the more common varieties of truffle and what you might expect from them.
What are the different types of truffle?
Tuber melanosporum is the truffle most highly regarded by the French.
Image courtesy of Ayme truffles
It grows traditionally in the Perigord and Provence regions of France and also in Spain and Italy . It is otherwise known as the black truffle, truffe noire, Perigord truffle, diamond of the dirt, diamond of the kitchen and the black diamond. The black truffle is highly sought after for its earthy aroma. So many diamond references clearly indicate that this is, and always has been, considered treasure. It is black and knobbly on the outside and inside is black with a small percentage of creamy coloured connective tissue.
"It's not just that it's earthy or pungent — to me, it's also primal. It's more than just the flavour, the smell reaches inside you: it's compelling and really grabs you and makes you pay attention whether you like it or not." Ken Frank 2019
White winter truffle
Tuber magnatum pico is held in high regard by the Italians. It grows primarily in the Piedmonte region of Italy, although it can also now be found in Tuscany and Croatia. Otherwise referred to as the Piedmonte truffle or Alba truffle, it is coveted for its combination of garlicky and earthy flavours. It is smooth and creamy white in colour. It has thus far proven impossible to cultivate. Its scarcity possibly accounts for its high price and obsessive enthusiasts.
Image courtesy of Eater
White summer truffle
Tuber borchii, aka marzuili truffle. These summer truffles are harvested in the same areas as the white winter truffle, but during a different season. It has a sweet, garlicky aroma that is enjoyable, but inferior to the white winter truffle due to its subtlety and muskiness. However, it is a wonderful 'starter' truffle as it is more affordable than its winter conterpart. The summer and winter varieties look almost identical except that the summer truffle can take on a darker cream/brown colour as the season progresses.
Tuber brumale, also known as musky truffle or rougeotte, is a bit of a rogue. It impersonates the Black Diamond very well, being twins in appearance; harvested at the same time of year and growing in almost identical conditions. However, tuber brumale and tuber melanosporum are NOT the same truffle. Tuber brumale can be invasive to tuber melanosporum sites as it is far more readily reproduced - it is a survivor! While they look almost the same, the taste of the tuber melanosporum is better. As the name suggests, the musky truffle tastes rather more musky. How can we tell the difference? The white veins inside the truffle are wider and more thickly spaced in the tuber brumale than in the tuber melanosporum. A more obvious difference is that the peridium (bag around the truffle) of the brumale can be easily peeled off. The brumale or rougeotte can display a reddish colour but only when unripe making it difficult to spot the difference even for real truffinados.
Image courtesy of Tartufazzi
Black summer truffle
Tuber aesvitum, otherwise known as St-Jean truffle. They grow in France, Spain and Italy. From the outside, they resemble the black truffle only with far deeper ridges. On cutting them open, you will see a far paler interior. They are a good flavour, but more subtle than other varieties.
Tuber unicinatum. It is often referred to as the Burgundy truffle, and this is the area they were originally popular in. It is widespread in Europe. They are most similar to the black summer truffle.
Terfezia bouderi, aka desert truffle or black kame. This is a truffle that grows underneath hot desert sands. It has been harvested and eaten for thousands of years and despite looking more like a potato, is still the most widely collected truffle in the world. It is a highly perfumed truffle that has been revered for its aphrodisiac qualities since the age of the ancient Egyptians.
Black Chinese truffle
The tuber indicum or Himalayan truffle is found across China. The merit of these truffles is contentious. Some suggest that they are comparable to European varieties while others claim that they are very different.
Which is the best truffle?
It is probably safe to say that all varieties of truffle taste good! But the best are without doubt the Black truffle (tuber melanosporum) and the Piedmont truffle (tuber magnatum pico). In true European fashion, the dispute between the French and Italians shall remain forever unresolved: the French claiming that the Perigordian black truffle (tuber melanosporum) is the best; the Italians claiming that the winter alba truffle (tuber magnatum pico) is the number one. It is impossible not to admire their passion and loyalty.
Personally, my roots are in France.
Truffles contain an aromatic gas. On being sliced open, the gas is released. White truffles contain more of the gas, so their aroma is more intense initially. However, the gas evaporates when the truffle is cooked. The black truffle, however has a more subtle initial perfume, but greater longevity. This is the reason white truffles are primarily eaten uncooked while black truffles can be eaten in this way, or can be cooked in the dish.
"There are two breeds of truffle eaters, one who believes that truffles are good because they are expensive, and the other who knows they are expensive because they are good." Vaudoyer (1873)
Image courtesy of Sensibus
Be careful with the naming of truffles. Because truffles go by so many aliases, it is easy to confuse an unsuspecting truffanado. Many 'truffle' oils or other products are made using synthesised chemicals. They still taste delicious as they are chemically identical to some of the flavour elements of the truffle. But they do not hold the same aesthetic draw as oils made by using shavings from the real treasure and they lack some of the more subtle variations that a good truffle can contain.
Not only do some of these truffles look virtually identical, but they are advertised using ambiguous names like the 'winter truffle', 'black winter truffle' or 'black truffle'. These do not accurately describe the variety of truffle and can be very (deliberately?) confusing.
While all truffles taste good, it is important to know what you are buying so that you can pay a fair price and also know what to expect and how to best prepare your dish.
As with all food products, other factors will affect the taste of your truffle including growing conditions and ripeness. So when buying a truffle, follow your nose. Sniff it to check the quality of the aroma. Most importantly however, when buying from a store, is that you follow your eyes. Look for the Latin name. If there isn't one, it is probably because there is no truffle. Seeing the name 'tuber melanosporum' is the only way to really be sure of eating a true Black Diamond. Why settle for anything less?