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Where to get fresh truffles

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This information is most useful in Fall and Winter, but I got a request after another thread in the Cooking forum, mentioning other species and their uses. An earlier thread on "summer truffles" included some negative experiences.

Fresh truffles (the underground mushrooms, not the chocolate sweets that look like them) are perishable, and must be used quickly. Modern air shipment brings them fresh to many places, but a good local liaison is valuable. Although distant firms will ship them, I've had (and heard) the best results with local importers who either let you choose truffles in person (if the importer handles enough quantity to do that) or are locally reputable and buy carefully (if you must pay in advance, truffle-unseen).

Typical local sources for home cooks are specialty food dealers and high-end restaurant kitchens. Some specialty dealers are delicatessens doing their own importing. Others are wholesalers, serving restaurants or food manufacturers, and may sell retail on request. (Keep in mind that unlike some wholesale products, available only in large quantity, truffles are sold in small amounts even to businesses.) Where I first bought fresh truffles in California in the 1980s, good delicatessens sold them; one also sold wholesale, supplying the best-known local restaurant.

If you can't find likely food dealers, but you know a high-end restaurant that uses truffles in season, ask the chef where to get them. It helps if you've patronized the restaurant a few times, and formed a rapport with the chef or kitchen. A helpful chef may refer you, or even offer to get some for you with the restaurant's next order.

Season for black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) is around late Fall through early Winter. I've seen flavor and aroma fall off noticeably as Winter progresses. White (Alba, or Piedmont) truffles, T. magnatum, have shorter and spottier availability. The strongest truffle aromas I've experienced were from good fresh Italian white truffles -- also the most expensive. Black truffles normally are used in cooked dishes, but the Italian whites are shaved raw over food as a seasoning (after carefully scrubbing the dirt off them).

Much cheaper secondary or minor truffle species, as in the recent "summer truffles" thread, have different seasons. I put "summer truffles" in quotation marks because they're not a summer-season version of true black truffles, but a different and much milder species, Tuber aestivum. Confusion on this point is common lately, and profitable to some businesses, which even encourage it. Always verify the Latin name. If it's only a few dollars per ounce (30g), it's a minor species. The Oregon White (T. oregonense, earlier T. gibbosum), likewise not equivalent to the famous Italian white truffle, is harvested and aggressively marketed in recent years; gatherers sell online, at local fresh markets, etc. Fresh Oregon Whites I've cooked with were extremely mild, more like above-ground wild mushrooms than classic truffles. There was some backlash by US west-coast chefs to the marketing claims for this species. Some specimens allegedly have stronger flavor and aroma.

Truffles grow wild, underground, worldwide, in association with certain trees. They are far more common than once thought. Most species, though, aren't gathered because they lack the flavor and aroma that make classic European black and white truffles so prized, and so costly.

Preserved truffles (in jars or cans), especially "summer truffles," are available year-round. (Here also I've seen deceptive labeling.) All preserved truffles have been cooked, and offer less flavor and aroma than fresh (sometimes, preserved "summer truffles" are enhanced with additives) but they are useful for experimentation. True black truffles can carry considerable flavor even after canning.

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