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.
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.
“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?”