Somewhere in a back alley outside of Paris, $30,000 worth of black European truffles is changing hands. Asking the seller about the truffles' origins could send them packing to another less inquisitive buyer, so the buyer ponies up quietly and hauls off the heavily perfumed, cloth-lined crate while the seller slips discreetly into an already running Mini.
This is not fiction. A recent expose on 60 Minutes detailed just such an exchange, and all the mafia-esque transactions, thuggery, price gouging and the plumping of inventories with inferior imports from China that the European truffle market is currently enduring. Why? Climate change seems to be the biggest culprit, blamed for reducing the past year's harvest to a mere 30 tons, down from more than 1,000 tons about 50 years ago. We predict that truffle certification will soon be de rigueur, assuring the concerned consumer that no one was harmed during the harvest, sale and export of the aromatic fungi.
Perhaps now is a good time to point out that two of our California-grown truffles species -- Tuber californicum (California white truffle) and Leucangium carthusianum (Oregon black truffle) are now safely in season through the nonviolent auspices of Clearwater Farms. Their fragrance won't hit you over the head like their European counterparts', but they are bold and musky and are here until just after Valentine's Day.
The California white truffle is a tiny, dense fungus, rarely getting much larger than a hazelnut, though some do reach nearly walnutlike proportions. It grows at the base of oaks and conifers in the far northern part of the state around Shasta. It's a favorite among the ground squirrels, which is how the fungus distributes its spores. Truffle hunters look for shallow divots at the base of target trees indicating that the hunt, and race to harvest, is on.
The Oregon black truffle thrives around the roots of the Douglas fir and develops a slightly more pungent perfume than its smaller California cousin. While the common name places it out of state, Carl Oldnettle from Clearwater assures us they grow fine in Northern California, too.
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"Don't store them in any airtight container," Oldnettle advises. "No Mason jars or Tupperware. Wrap them in cloth in the refrigerator if you have to store them. But don't let them sit."
Indeed, the farther from harvest, the less trufflelike they become. Even at a truffle-reasonable $20 an ounce -- the European varieties will command five times that price -- plus the assurance of knowing your truffle was likely humanely harvested, in state, and required no back-room deals to get to your plate, it's money well spent.
Felicia Friesema is a Master Food Preserver with the UC Cooperative Extension and Co-Leader of Slow Food USA's Los Angeles chapter. You can follow her on Twitter at @FeliciaFriesema.