A scientist may wish to legitimately study and class types of truffle into the literally hundreds of species and sub species found around the world, but for the purposes of cooking -and most importantly eating- it is much simpler and quicker to break it down for you into these four broad categories:
Firstly let us take a look at..
The best known, most cultivated, and highly prized black truffle, is the European Périgord or Tuber melanosporum, covered in more detail in a separate page here.
Black truffles have many more edible varieties than the larger and more valuable white truffle, and due to this, its wider dispersal around the world, greater adaptability to differing climates and habitats, and finally (in part due to all the above) because it can be found pretty much all year round in one form or another, will always be the (slightly) poorer relation compared to the white truffle.
~~The Taste of a Truffle~~
Ask two different people to describe the palate of a glass of wine, and you will get two different answers, and both views will have merit. To describe the taste or smell of a truffle if you have not experienced it, is therefore difficult. But not impossible. The closest category of taste that one can associate with truffles is 'Umami'.
The Human Palate
There are six recognised 'tastes' that the human palate can detect and differentiate between:
**'Umami' is relatively recent in its acceptance in the scientific world, and refers to a kind of 'tang' on the tongue, an example of which could be the scent of a matured cheese, or of strong (but not necessarily hot) spices found often in Asian and African cooking. It is a blend of savoury and sweet sensations, and has been replicated for the mass food market, with artificial flavorings such as monosodium glutamate.
(MSG is a hybrid product, a kind of chemically enhanced fermented food additive, and is a cheaper alternative to natural spices and herbs in large scale food preparation.)
The Spice of Life
Adding truffles usually (due to the obvious cost consideration) in very small amounts to food, gives a wonderful zing to virtually anything, and can be added to savoury or dessert dishes alike. Grated raw sparingly over pasta or salads, truffles are amazing, and used during the cooking of meat or vegetarian dishes in thin slices or as part of sauces, adds a certain touch of class as you savour the taste in the most important part of any cooking- the eating.
The Price of a Good Meal
The question of taste and aroma should, of course, play a large part in the valuation of any food product, but often in life, and in cooking, taste is not always the measure of price. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say, and the rarer a commodity, coupled with the perception of the product in the mind of the public, ultimately determines the cost of anything.
The stronger, some would say more acquired taste of the white truffle as compared to black truffles generally, coupled with the white truffle's comparative rarity (of the quality examples desired by top chefs and restaurants at any rate), means that although black truffles are by no means cheap, and could quite easily be described as expensive, they are generally much more affordable than the white truffle.
This of course makes the black truffle, in whatever form, a great, versatile, cost effective way to delve into the world of truffles, for the amateur food lover or professional chef alike.
The most widely used alternative to the black Périgord is the 'summer' or 'burgundy' truffle. Actually with the exception of a DNA strand or two, the summer and burgundy truffles are more or less identical, the main difference being the best harvesting time, which is late autumn to early winter for the burgundy (the same as most black truffles), and no prizes for guessing when the summer truffle can be found- in Europe that is May to September.
These extended periods of cultivation make the summer/burgundy truffle particularly useful for food lovers worldwide. They grow in broadly the same regions as the other main black varieties, and have a slightly less pungent aroma, paler flesh and are generally cheaper than the standard bearing Périgord.
There are other black truffles in common use in cooking, for example the Oregon black truffle (covered in a later section here), but only the real experts need to know all of the myriad variations. As a general rule almost all black varieties tend to grow and be harvested from autumn to early winter, have a dark bumpy but even skin so are fairly easy to recognise, and most have a similar smell and taste, with only the intensity varying between the different types.
Therefore if it looks as described above, and is being advertised as a truffle and you trust the source, then call it a black truffle, enjoy, and you shouldn't go far wrong.
To explore the other three main groups of truffles covered at Truffle-King, click on the headings below to take you to that page in the series..