The ‘food of the gods’ is now within everyone’s reach. But is there less to the new snacks than meets the eye?
It is the smell that hits you first: a heady slap of petroleum, garlic, funghi and warm earth after rainfall, followed by a whiff of peppery olive oil. Next comes a delicate crunch, and that distinctively deep, savoury flavour. This is what luxury tastes like; this, and a glass of dazzling toasty bubbles that taste like champagne but is really a £9 crémant from Sainsbury’s. Because I am not fine dining. I am not even dining. I am on the sofa, in my jimjams, watching Massimo Bottura on the Netflix series Chef’s Table and eating a snack that would see most Italian chefs of his calibre tear out their hair in disgust: truffle popcorn.
Handmade in London by “gourmet popcorn” brand Joe & Sephs, this is the latest in a growing number of “lowbrow” foods to use an ingredient that has more usually been confined to haute cuisine. Ten years ago, the flavour of truffle was an imagined treat: I had smelled it, at the truffle stall Tartufaia in London’s Borough Market, but never had the pleasure of eating it. In the past fortnight alone, I’ve had truffle-infused pizza, mashed potato, popcorn and macaroni cheese – and not just for the sake of this piece.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
We are obsessed; or at least those of us who like truffles are. “The people who love it really, really love it,” says Jess Seaton, the co-founder of Crate brewery, “but it is an acquired flavour.” Her sage, potato and truffle pizza is something “people travel for miles and miles to eat” at Crate’s bar in Hackney Wick, east London. South of the Thames, Spanish-produce importers Brindisa recently bought extra storage space to cope with demand for its Torres truffle crisps. Street food joint Sub-Cult, which made its name with its braised portobello mushroom-stuffed sub, laden with truffle mayo, will open its first bricks-and-mortar outlet next month in the City of London.
Outside the capital, you can find truffle macaroni cheese at Holy Moly Macaroni in Birmingham, truffle fries and truffle mash at Neighbourhood in Liverpool; a black truffle base pizza at Purezza in Brighton; and truffle and parmesan chips in Browns brasserie & Bar outlets around the country. Waitrose has seen sales of truffle products rise so much, it recently planted its own black truffle orchard in its estate in Hampshire. Sniff around your local branch now, and you’ll find a brie with mushroom and truffle and a truffle-infused pecorino, as well as Joe and Seph’s popcorn, and truffle crisps from Tyrells.
For millennia, the truffle, particularly the white winter truffle, has symbolised decadence. “The ancient Greeks, whose truffle recipes are the earliest we’ve found, called it the food of the Gods,” says Mario Prati, owner of Tartufaia. “In the Renaissance, at private parties in Venice they had bowls of white truffles to arouse the guests.” Truffles were, after all, revered for their aphrodisiac properties, “which we’ve since disproven”, he points out, disappointingly.Advertisement
So how come the makers of crisps and popcorn can now afford to offer truffle-flavoured snacks? It is not as though the price of truffles has plummeted. Sure, the cost of white winter truffles went down last autumn thanks to an unusually bounteous harvest, but 2018’s prices of £1,783 to £2,229 a kilo are hardly snack-friendly, and even their “cheaper” cousins, black truffles, cost around £750. Truffle farms – where hazel and oak trees are inoculated with the black truffle fungus – have definitely bolstered supplies, but they are hardly reliable, says Prati. “It takes 10 years to get the first crop, so you won’t know until then whether they have successfully established.”
We want to know what we’re eating is natural, and the idea of truffles represents thatMorgaine Gaye
Instead, he says, it is truffle oil that’s has been the enabling force behind the democratisation of truffles, together with its key ingredient: synthetic flavouring. The use of truffle oil by chefs and producers is no great secret. It is there on menus and the back of packets. What does surprise me – and I suspect many people who eat it – is that truffle oil’s flavour is the result not of the small bits of truffle you can see inside, but of the added flavouring. Although truffle’s natural aroma clings lovingly to animal fats, it does not stick to plant-based olive or rapeseed oils. The piece of black truffle you find in a bottle of truffle oil is for decorative purposes and to legitimise the use of “truffle” on the label. The flavour and distinctive scent come from lab-manufactured essences, created to mimic the stronger white winter truffle, which grows in Italy alone and cannot be cultivated elsewhere.
“There is nothing wrong with it,” Prati says, “but it’s a matter of transparency. People assume that the black truffle slice is giving it the flavour, but black truffle doesn’t smell or taste like that.” The result is that his first-time customers buy black truffle expecting truffle oil levels of pungency, and are subsequently disappointed with their homemade dish. Prati doesn’t object to using truffle oil – he makes and sells it himself – he just wishes there was more honesty in its use and production. The delicious irony is that the public’s growing scepticism around the food industry and unfamiliar ingredients has been one of the key trends driving demand for truffle products in recent years. “We’re more concerned about provenance these days,” says food futurologist Morgaine Gaye. “We want to know what we’re eating is natural, and the idea of truffles represents that.” Even if truffle oil is the result of artificial processes, “the flavour is earthy and natural. It feels real.”
But the truffle craze is not driven by the oil prices alone. “Truffle has that umami, savoury profile you see in miso and tahini,” Gaye says. “It’s part of this shift away from sweetness towards more exotic, savoury flavours – and it’s part of the rising interest in the health benefits of funghi.”
“Historically, umami fans would turn to other ingredients like anchovy or parmesan to get their savoury kick,” agrees Shokofeh Hejazi, senior trend analyst at The Food People, a global food trends and ideas agency. “The development of products flavoured with truffle flavours and aromas means that this umami flavour is more accessible.”
Then there is the explosion of the “affordable luxury” market. “When we launched Joe & Seph’s in 2010, it was the height of the recession,” says Joe Sopher, the company’s co-founder, “and what struck us immediately was that people were buying our popcorn to go with Netflix, as something gourmet but affordable. Our popcorn is handmade by pastry chefs using quality ingredients, and the truffle oil we use does contain white truffles as well as truffle flavour – but it is £4 a bag.”
Crisp-maker Tyrells, meanwhile, is experimenting with what it calls “swanky” flavours such as posh prawn cocktail, Aberdeen Angus and of course black truffle crisps, featuring dried black truffle powder and dried porcini mushrooms. The result is as close as you will come to black truffle without leaving the sofa or ordering in.
That said, having heard from fellow truffle-lovers that Torres crisps just about trump Tyrells, I recently made my way to Brindisa in Borough Market, nose primed, only to find the designated shelf empty. “Excuse me,” I asked a member of staff, not a little embarrassed at the quaver in my voice, “but do you have any of Torres’ truffle crisps out the back?”
“I’m afraid we’re all out, madam,” came the reply. “Have you tried their latest addition: the caviar crisps?”
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