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Dale attributes the truffle's legendary status to its scarcity and also to the fact that it's "so aromatic and unique. There's nothing else on the planet like a truffle," he says, "and it's not cultivatable. It's one of those wonders of nature." Ginger and black peppercorn enjoyed similar status until people learned to cultivate them, he points out.
The truffle is the underground fruit of a plant that consists of a web of fine filaments, or mycelium. These bond with the roots of certain trees -- notably oak, hazelnut and linden -- in an astonishing symbiosis called a mycorrhizal relationship. The truffle filaments become extensions of the tree's roots, helping the tree draw minerals from the earth. In turn, the tree's leaves nourish the truffle plant. It's this complex relationship that's so difficult for would-be cultivators to duplicate.
Pigs, dogs and goats are used to find the precious morsels. Some twenty years ago, Radek Cerny, now chef/owner of Papillon, watched a pig hunting truffles in France. He describes the handlers holding down the 200-pound sow and wrestling away the truffle -- and then slipping her a piece. "The pig needs to get some reward," Cerny observes. "Or maybe next time she'd say, "Hey, no more.'"
What makes the pig such an avid truffle hunter? In a word, sex. Truffles produce a chemical that's also present in boar saliva and that prompts mating behavior in the sow. And why are we humans so crazy for the stuff? Uh, same reason. The chemical also exists in male underarm sweat. (Truffles, by the way, are loaded with glutamic acid, the primary component of that elusive fifth taste, umami.)
The beauty of truffles lies in the paradox they offer: They may be a luxury food, but they ground us, too, reminding us of the earth and uniting us with something primal. There you sit in an elegant restaurant, unfolding your snowy napkin as the assiduous waiter hurries to your table carrying a dish of gnocchi or risotto, salmon or perfectly prepared medallion of duck. And the thing that makes this dish so utterly sumptuous, the thing that drives the cost clear through the roof, is a garnish that sends pigs into sexual ecstasy.