New York Times:
Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles
May 16, 2007
Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles
By DANIEL PATTERSON
A TRUFFLE by any other name may smell as sweet, but
what if that name is 2,4-dithiapentane? All across the country, in restaurants great and small, the “truffle”
flavor advertised on menus is increasingly being supplied by truffle oil. What those menus don’t say is that, unlike
real truffles, the aroma of truffle oil is not born in the earth. Most commercial truffle oils are concocted by mixing olive
oil with one or more compounds like 2,4-dithiapentane (the most prominent of the hundreds of aromatic molecules that make
the flavor of white truffles so exciting) that have been created in a laboratory; their one-dimensional flavor is also changing
common understanding of how a truffle should taste.
I discovered truffle oil as a chef in the late 1990’s, I was thrilled. So much flavor, so little expense. I suppose
I could have given some thought to how an ingredient that cost $60 an ounce or more could be captured so expressively in an
oil that sold for a dollar an ounce. I might have wondered why the price of the oils didn’t fluctuate along with the
price of real truffles; why the oils of white and black truffles cost the same, when white truffles themselves were more than
twice as expensive as black; or why the quality of oils didn’t vary from year to year like the natural ingredients.
But I didn’t. Instead I happily used truffle oil for several years (even, embarrassingly, recommending it in a cookbook),
until finally a friend cornered me at a farmers’ market to explain what I had should have known all along. I glumly
pulled all my truffle oil from the restaurant shelves and traded it to a restaurant down the street for some local olive oil.
That truffle oil is chemically enhanced is
not news. It has been common knowledge among most chefs for some time, and in 2003 Jeffrey Steingarten wrote an article in
Vogue about the artificiality of the oils that by all rights should have shorn the industry of its “natural” fig
leaf. Instead, the use of truffle oil continued apace. The question is, Why are so many chefs at all price points —
who wouldn’t dream of using vanillin instead of vanilla bean and who source their organic baby vegetables and humanely
raised meats with exquisite care — using a synthetic flavoring agent?
Part of the answer is that, even now, you will find chefs who are surprised to hear that truffle
oil does not actually come from real truffles. “I thought that it was made from dried bits and pieces of truffles steeped
in olive oil,” said Vincent Nargi of Cafe Cluny in Manhattan, which made me put down my pen and scratch my head. The
flavor of real truffles, especially black, is evanescent, difficult to capture in an oil under the best of circumstances.
But, much as
I did for years, chefs want to believe. Stories of sightings of natural truffle oil abound, like a gourmand’s answer
to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. One chef told me in an excited, slightly conspiratorial tone that Jing Tio of Le
Sanctuaire in Santa Monica, Calif., who sells high-quality specialty ingredients to chefs, mixed his own oil to order.
This seemed unlikely. When I asked Mr. Tio, he gave me a
funny look. “Natural?” he said, rolling his eyes. “Nooo ...”
Truffle companies are secretive, and speaking to their representatives does little to illuminate
their production techniques. I was told by Federico Balestra at Sabatino Tartufi that its oil is now “100 percent organic,”
made from dried truffles and other ingredients with flavors “similar to truffle.” Vittorio Giordano of Urbani
Tartufi called its manufacturing method, though conducted in a laboratory, a “natural process.” He described the
essence that his company uses as “something from the truffle that is not the truffle.”
Whereas once truffles were hallmarks of local cooking — black in France
and white in Italy — the globalization of cuisine has led to worldwide demand for an ingredient whose output continues
to decline. As with some highly collectible wines, the virulent combination of high value and scarcity have created an environment
ripe for fraudulent behavior. French agencies conduct chemical analyses of black truffles to ensure that they are not inferior
Chinese or Spanish truffles soaked in truffle oil or juice. White truffles from other areas of Italy have been known to show
up at the Alba market, summer truffles passed off as winter. But when it comes to the oil, chefs are helping to perpetuate
the fraud. Why?
Call it the LVMH-ization of
cooking. Truffles have become a luxury brand, one that connotes a way of life as much as a style of cooking. “Chefs
use truffle oil because it’s easy to add a gloss of glamour with it — and because it helps sell dishes,”
S. Irene Virbila, chief restaurant critic of The Los Angeles Times, said in an e-mail message.
Although the scent of a truffle just dug can be one of the most profound gustatory
experiences of the Western world, it’s one that not many people in this country have had on truffles’ native soil.
Once there were only a few expensive and exclusive restaurants that recreated that experience, which only select customers
could afford. Truffle oil has simultaneously democratized and cheapened the truffle experience, creating a knockoff that goes
by the same name.
The competitiveness of the
restaurant scene has a lot to do with this trend. What most people know of truffles is truffle “aroma,” which
has helped shape their expectations of what they’re paying for — and how much they should have to pay to get it.
“Price is definitely a factor,” said Shea Gallante of Cru in Manhattan, who uses black truffle oil to reinforce
the flavor of real black truffles in a midwinter pasta dish. “If I didn’t use the two drops of oil I would have
to add another 8 to 10 grams of truffle,” he said, making the dish too expensive for his clientele. Many chefs agree
that the quality of truffles in this country has fallen in recent years, added to the fact that every minute a truffle spends
out of the ground enervates its flavor. The increased scrutiny of imported goods hasn’t helped; prolonged stays in customs
might be keeping the country safe from exploding fungi, but it’s not doing much for the truffle’s aromatic intensity.
And Americans, as many were quick to note, like big flavors.
“People expect the slap in the face of truffle oil,” said Jonathan Gold, the restaurant critic for LA Weekly.
“They have lost their taste for subtlety; they want bigger than life flavors that are amped up with aromatics. That’s
American cooking at the moment.” Many chefs are turning to truffle oil as a way to get truffle aromas that, as many
chefs put it, “jump off the plate,” often dressing real truffles in the oil before sending them to the table to
heighten their effect. It raises the question, What will happen when there is a synthetic heirloom tomato scent or an imitation
ripe peach flavor? Are we moving toward an era of fake food?
Probably not. Truffle oil seems unique in this regard. Most chefs I spoke with said they were undisturbed
by its artificiality, although they are quite concerned with its “proper” usage, which chiefly comes down to restraint:
less, in this case, is more. This is curious, considering that the same chefs will say in the next breath that the best way
to use real truffles is in profusion. Some call truffle oil “authentic” only when used in conjunction with real
truffles, while others maintain that they like it for what it is, something altogether different.
“I used to use white truffle oil a lot, but now I only use a little bit
in my liquid black truffle ravioli,” Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago told me. “It adds a little more perfume,
a slightly different flavor. I cut my teeth cooking at the French Laundry, and when we were using truffles there was always
a bottle close by. But after I was on my own for a while I started to ask myself why I was using it, and I didn’t have
a good answer. It doesn’t even taste like truffle.”
Chris L’Hommedieu, chef de cuisine at Michael Mina in San Francisco, used truffle oils during his tenure
as chef de cuisine at Per Se in New York, although he said he never developed a taste for them. But when asked how much of
his aversion to truffle oil was due to its artificiality, he told me: “One hundred percent. I learned that from Jean-Louis.”
Mr. L’Hommedieu’s recollection
involved the late chef Jean-Louis Palladin, with whom he worked at Palladin, a Manhattan restaurant that is now closed. Returning
from a trip out of town, Mr. Palladin was enraged to walk into the kitchen and find that in his absence bottles of truffle
oil had cropped up everywhere. Grabbing two of them, he called the staff out to the alley behind the restaurant where the
garbage was held. He hurled the oil at the side of the building, smashing the glass bottles against the wall. “It’s
full of chemicals,” he screamed at his confused and frightened staff members, who scrambled back to the kitchen through
the gathering scent of truffle oil mingled with the fetid air of the alley. “No more!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.