What is a truffle?

White Truffles

The first question many people ask when considering the subject of truffles is- 'What exactly is a truffle?'

The short answer is truffles are fungi that grow amongst the roots of certain trees, and have been prized in the art of cooking and food preparation for their unique taste and aroma for thousands of years.

They usually fit in the palm of your hand, weigh about the same as a golf ball or baseball depending on the size, come in two main varieties (black and white) and tend to grow in fertile deciduous soil. They can be farmed or harvested wild, and depending on the type are only to be found at certain times of the year, adding to their rarity.

Oh yes, and the truffle fungus is unique, expensive, versatile and highly sought after in the world of cuisine.

And now the science bit..

For a more in depth answer as to what are truffles we have to delve into the subject of biology, which is slightly complex, so quickly let us break it down here for you as simply as we can.

There are six biological 'kingdoms' of life. Three kingdoms are classes of micro-organisms (bacteria, protozoa, and other non-nucleic life, or organisms which have the most basic of cell structures).

The two main recognised kingdoms when we think of life on Earth are of course animal and plant, but there is a sixth group, which lies in a class of its own, called fungi.

Magical mushrooms

Truffle-King Magical Mushroom

We are familiar with the term 'funghi' in Italian and French cooking, which translates into English as 'mushrooms'. So funghi (fungi) play a crucial role in cooking and food preparation, and apart from tasting great in their own right, for many reasons would be difficult for us to live without.

Yeast, essential for raising bread, is a fungus. The enzymes present in different types of yeast produce virtually all alcoholic drinks from fine wines to whiskeys, as well as being a constituent element of condiments such as soy sauce.

Medical benefits

 Scientists in Mycology- the Study of Fungi

Mycology, or research into fungi, is indispensable in the medical world, where fungi are used to cultivate vaccines and other products essential for the human race. They also play an important role in detergent production used in the cleaning up of oil spills and more.

Fungi are crucial in the creation of pesticides to protect crops worldwide. Although organic is always best, we cannot deny that sometimes the greater good can be served by at least having an option to control organisms that can wipe out entire crops, and potentially leave whole nations short of food.

The wonderful truffle

And of course, fungi are a huge part of the wonderful world of cuisine and cooking, not the least of which is the marvellous but humble truffle.

Black Truffles

So the next question after truffle definition should logically be- what are the different types of truffle?