Truffle testing 

Ah, the famed truffle. I’d heard about that rarest and most precious of all mushrooms, but I had never tasted one. So, on a recent trip to Italy, I was determined to try dishes made with truffles. I wasn’t even sure if I would like them. Suffice to say, once I’d truffled, I was hooked. The sweet, earthy aroma and delicate flavor of the truffle are virtually incomparable.

Back on home turf, when a friend insisted that truffles were cultivated in upstate Michigan, I was determined to do some figurative digging. I never did discover a Michigan-grown truffle, but I did learn a lot about the difficulty of procuring truffles in America.

Alex Pratt at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor says Zingerman’s carries fresh truffles once a year, in late November and early December. But their supply, imported from France and Italy, is limited, so they take special orders for the delicacy.

“(Truffles are) so expensive and perishable,” says Pratt, “we have to sell them within a few days to a week after their arrival.” No wonder — at as much as $80-$100 per ounce, a purchaser will want to know that the product is fresh.

At Morels, in Bingham Farms, executive chef Frank Turner adds dishes prepared with truffles to the menu whenever he can. But, he acknowledges, the cost means that truffle dishes make a rare appearance. “They’re great shaved on fresh risotto or on a pasta salad,” he says. “Sometimes I put them in demi-glace sauces with cognac. Or I’ll put it on meat or on fowl.”

Turner is a veritable encyclopedia of information on truffles. Here’s what he taught me: “The fresh black summer truffles are right now the most common truffles. Those are $158 a pound. They grow in limestone terrain under oak trees in and around pine wood forests. The second most popular is a fresh black winter truffle, which can also grow under hazelnut trees. Finding them fresh, that’s hard.”

And, he adds succinctly, “Truffle business is a cash business. Flash-frozen, seven ounces cost $500.” And the white truffle, Turner explains, is the “super-duper king of truffles.”

So, what’s a wannabe truffle-tryer to do? Turner recommends trying white truffle-infused olive oil, which can give a first-time experimenter a “flavor profile.” He cautions: “Use a very, very little bit over a fresh salad. This will let you find out what a truffle tastes like. Or try an omelette. Use shavings or a little white truffle oil in the eggs.”

George Gize, who owns Assaggi Mediterranean Bistro in Ferndale, offers another solution. His menu boasts a wood-roasted pizza appetizer prepared with ricotta, chevre, sun-dried tomato and canned Lebanese truffles for an affordable $9. The canned truffles, which cost about $17 for 30 ounces, are available in local Arabic groceries. “If I used fresh truffles,” he jokes, “I’d have to charge $50 per plate.”

The Web contains a host of additional resources, including an intriguing site, www.oregonwhitetruffles.com, which is not only a source for the home-grown variety (hooray!), but for excellent information, recipes and links. Looking for an importer? Try www.urbani.com. For the best in truffles from the truffle-est region of Italy, go to www.truffle.it. And at www.truffle.org, you can take a virtual course in the biology and cultivation of truffles. —Audrey Becker

TREATS

Next time you pick up a California peach, plum or nectarine, eat it by the computer. Those little sticky labels now carry Web addresses where you can find recipes, tips for buying fruit, and more. Goes to show there are more than just Apples in the computer world. … Have a musical lunch this Thursday, Aug. 3, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at Southfield’s City Center Plaza. There will be free live concerts and more.

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