Those lucky enough to know the wonders of eating truffle will testify that this gift from the earth is indeed the ultimate aphrodisiac. One might even go so far as to say it is the ultimate food experience… period. Hard to believe this indulgence of legendary proportions starts with the truffle hog.
Unfortunately, as we all know, eating truffles is not a common experience. Unless, of course, you’re a wild sow in a grove of oak trees. What do I mean? I’ll get to the romance between truffle pigs and these fabulous fungi but first, let’s reflect on the magic that makes truffles so desirable.
What is a truffle?
I should pause for a moment to clarify what a truffle really is, because “truffle” has two meanings. Most people think of a chocolate dessert called “truffle” when the term arises. But once you know the fungus truffle, you will be among a society of the lucky few.
Don’t confuse it with a chocolate truffle
Of course, the dessert kind is very nice, as well. I mean who doesn’t like chocolate? The dessert truffle is made from ganache, a mixture of heavy cream and chocolate. It is usually rolled in something else after it is chilled, such as cocoa powder, chopped nuts, or something sweet. Certainly, it’s a decadent bite for a sweet tooth.
But if you want a succulent, earthy taste, the other truffle is your goal. This kind of truffle, the kind found in forests by trained pigs or dogs, is basically the fruit of a fungus, like a mushroom. But unlike mushrooms, truffles grow entirely underground. This makes them hard to find. This means that unfortunately this kind of truffle can’t be as easily attained as a truffle made by mixing chocolate and cream. And at upwards of $600/pound, few can afford even a bite. But once you’ve tasted a truffle, there’s no going back.
What do they taste like?
The flavor of a fresh truffle is earthy, musty, and sexy, a multi-sensory experience involving sight, smell, taste, mouthfeel, and something innately primitive, even, some say, arousing. This taste experience is so uniquely powerful that it challenge’s a writer’s ability to translate flavor and texture into words. It rocks us into orbit.
Black truffles vs white truffles
There are two types of truffles, black truffles and white truffles. The flavors of the two have some startling differences. (There are also some differences in scent and flavor profile between truffles that come from different origins. But we’ll delve into where truffles come from in the next section.)
Black truffles have the more subtle, earthy flavor of the two. White truffles are the more pungent of the two and are sometimes described as having a slightly garlicky flavor. Because their flavor is bolder, they’re usually used more sparingly than black truffles in cooking.
Where do they come from?
The two main divisions of truffles are black and white truffles, coming historically from Perigord, France, and Alba, Italy, respectively. (However, there are truffles that grow wild in other parts of the world, including North America.)
Truffles are members of the edible fungus order Ascomycetous and are mainly of the Tuber genus. This means, as I mentioned, earlier, they are related to mushrooms. Both are fungi. But truffles grow underground and, unlike mushrooms, come in one fairly standard shape.
There is a fierce rivalry surrounding French and Italian truffles, as well as fierce debates concerning black and white truffles. Let it go. Both are great. However, you might want to take a little extra consideration as to how you will serve truffles. According to some experts, the black truffle needs to be slightly cooked, while the white truffle is sliced and eaten paper-thin, in the raw.
So what does a truffle pig do?
Now that we understand what truffles are and where they come from, we can take a closer look at how this wild fungus is hunted by hogs. (Note that although the pig is the traditional truffle hunting animal, today trained dogs are very popular hunters. I also know one truffle hunter who finds truffles without the use of any animal at all. But historically, pigs are the heroes of truffle lore.)
Where are truffles found?
To understand how truffle-finding pigs actually discover truffles, you need to understand a little bit about how truffles grow. Truffles have a symbiotic relationship to certain tree roots, and the ground above the growing tubers can show a “scorched earth” appearance, referred to as terre brûlée in France.
An additional clue to finding truffles is to look for gnats. Small gnats or flies are often found around the area, apparently anxious to lay their larvae in a fertile food delta. Unfortunately, although many humans rave about the earthy musky smell of truffles, our sense of smell is not keen enough to detect them growing underground.
The skill of a truffle hog
That’s why we need the chercheuse (“pursuer”), provided by a trained truffle pig or dog, whose sense of smell is a lot sharper than ours. (It is said that the pig’s sense of smell is even sharper than a dog’s.) Although their senses of smell need little to no honing, the pigs must be trained and be able to walk on a leash before they can work as a truffle hunting pig.
You may not think a pig is a trainable animal. But there is enough research to show that pigs may be smarter than dogs. And before they are trusted with hunting for rare and expensive tubers, pigs are trained not just to walk on a lead but to retrieve and release toys and treats. The process is similar to training a service dog. Incidentally, all breeds of pigs show the ability to be trained, you don’t have to have some special, rare breed.
These finely trained and beloved creatures are of great value in France. Food writer Elatia Harris brings the point home with the story of a Frenchman sentenced to 45 years in prison for stealing two truffle hunting pigs in 1985. No one protested. To the French, the punishment was considered quite fitting.
Also driving home this point is the 2021 Nicholas Cage film, Pig about the lengths a farmer will go to in trying to retrieve his stolen truffle hog. In the movie, the pig was said to be worth upwards of $25,000. In reality, a truffle pig costs a few thousand dollars, maybe less if the animal is young and less trained. (A well-trained and highly reputable pig will cost more but $25,000 might be a stretch.)
Pigs finding truffles is a tradition dating back to Roman times. Today truffle hounds are also trained in the pursuit of this coveted fungus. Many modern truffle hunters have deemed truffle dogs easier to handle. It can be quite a trick to prevent a female pig from impulsively eating truffles as she finds them. After all, who can resist this tasty treat?
But the tradition of truffle hunting began with hogs, so truffles and pigs will be forever linked…and there just might be another reason the pig is the superior hunter when it comes to sniffing out truffles.
Do pigs get turned on by the smell of truffles?
Anyone who has savored a truffle can attest to its aphrodisiac effect. But there is also some objective scientific evidence to lend support that truffles can drive you wild. In Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, we learn that truffles contain androstenol, a pheromone found in men’s underarm sweat, (be still my beating heart). This chemical is also found in the saliva of the male pig, which prompts mating behavior in the sow. Suuuuueeeeyyyy! I rest my case.
How many truffles can a pig find in a day?
There is no set number of truffles to expect from a day of truffle hunting. Some days the truffle hunter might return with just one truffle. On other days it is none. There are also days when truffle hogs or truffle hunting dogs identify half a dozen or more in a single afternoon. The experience and cooperative nature of the pig come into play in having a successful hunt.
So, sometime before you die, you must find a way to taste a truffle. You will thank me for this. Below are some suggestions for retailers who carry truffle products. You can stretch your truffle tasting further by using them to flavor oil, butter or salt. A little truffle goes a long way.
Where to buy truffles
If you live in Tuscany or even the west coast of the United States, you might be lucky enough to find truffles for sale at your local farmer’s market in season. And if you live in the right conditions, you might just have truffles growing on your own property! (Check under your oak trees – just watch out for those gnats.) But for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to own truffle pigs, here are some resources to buy truffles online:
Pig photo by Annie Spratt
This article was written in 2009 with research by our intern, Le Cordon Bleu graduate Donna Whitehouse. It was most recently updated in March 2022.
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