Ordering yourself a bottle of truffle oil? Chef and writer Manu Chandra has thoughts…
It sounds like a cheerleader’s synchronised rhyme. And it may as well be — given the sheer number of chefs and customers who have fallen head-over-heels for the fragrant, musty, and now inescapable allure of truffle oil. No menu at the country’s most sought after tables is complete without the ingredient making several appearances on its pages. And if its most popular form – truffle fries — are far too pedestrian for an establishment’s chi-chi credentials, then it is guaranteed to make an appearance in the dessert section.
Whilst I’ve been guilty of using this ultimate marker of gourmand taste in the past, I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with its charms. Because once you’ve tasted the real deal – insanely expensive truffles dug with great care and effort from the ground – it is difficult to accept its impostor masquerading as an oil. So the real deal is this — truffles are the planet’s most expensive food, and they have been greatly treasured since before the Middle Ages, a trend driven largely by French connoisseurs.
Contrary to popular belief, they’re not limited to the regions of Alba and Périgord in France alone, but also grow in Afghanistan, Croatia, Hungary, China, and Tibet. We even have a home-grown variety out of Chikmagalur!
But real truffles are hard to find, and harder to forage. And they are only as good as their terroir – which is the ground in which they grow.Consider the Chinese variety, which is low on aroma and taste with no real market in its country of origin. But that didn’t stop the world’s largest truffle company, the Italian brand Urbani, from masquerading it as the OG Italian variety. In a plot that reads like a Mafia movie, Urbani was caught hoarding thirty-seven tons of the fake stuff in one warehouse alone… Such was its demand.
And commercially available truffle oil – the one you probably love so much – has absolutely nothing to do with truffles at all, save its name. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Alright, allow me to introduce you to a little secret. But I must issue a disclaimer: the taste of real truffles is so much milder, that it may come as a great disappointment if you are a fan of the oil.
Let’s flash back to the old school days when we were taught about LPG gas – a supposedly odourless, colourless gas. And yet, we can all smell a gas leak in the kitchen. The reason: the additive called ethyl mercaptan or ethanethiol, which is added precisely so you can smell it and prevent a nasty accident.
Truffle oil too has a similar additive, a petroleum byproduct called 2,4-Dithiapentane, which also happens to be a mercaptan! In other words, that too familiar LPG cylinder smell – or a trip to the petrol station – may well trigger a pleasant memory of that truffle fries you ordered on a Friday night.
And much as I would hate to be the bearer of bad news, mercaptans are most reminiscent of, well, farts.Mercaptans are also toxic. So, this love affair for overpriced, ‘gourmet’ food – which has fuelled the explosion of truffle-everything – is in essence, a partiality for a slightly toxic, fart-smelling compound, derived from petroleum and infused into olive oil.
Aspiration can make fools of the best of us, comforting us with the illusion that we are living the good life. And it’s all good as long as the veneer of authenticity is cloaked in a whole lot of marketing jargon – even if none of it has much merit. But none of this is likely to dent the inexorable march of the great truffle oil, fueled by its possession of two ingredients – mercaptans, and olive oil – which somehow carry it into full-blown foodie trend.
Which brings us back to those omnipresent truffle fries — the next time you are served a bowl of fries drizzled with a petroleum by-product – and topped with Grana Padano (sorry, that’s not parmesan, but that’s for another time) — you may well pause for just a second before you dig right in.