Notes on a Truffle Scandal

Recently I was perusing Tremont 647 chef Andy Husbands‘s blog, The Fearless Chef, and read an interesting post on truffle oil—specifically, his decision to not use it. Which piqued my interest, as Bostonians seem to be particularly obsessed with anything truffled these days. (See: truffle tots, truffle fries, truffle butter, truffle-stuffed rabbit, truffle gnocchi.)

His reason? Much of the truffle oil on the market hasn’t actually been truffle infused, or made with any actual truffle. It’s often created in a lab, using compounds that mimic the voluptuous, savory, earthy aroma of the actual stuff. There was a lot of discussion of this following the Times’ 2007 article on the subject, but it’s since faded, and truffle oil is still everywhere. I’ve yet to launch an investigation into the various truffle oils used in Boston kitchens, but my guess is there’s still plenty of synthetic stuff out there.

I can see why this is upsetting, especially to chefs who prefer local, simple, and unprocessed foods. But it begs the question: If it smells and tastes like truffle, if most people can’t tell the difference, and—and here’s the tricky part—people like it, how much should its non-authenticity matter? I haven’t done any blind taste tests, but I trust that the two are similar enough to confuse most diners, save a small percentage of supertasters and folks with a genuine truffle habit.

And if the biggest argument against synthetic truffle flavor is that it’s born in a lab, then maybe we foodies should reconsider our fascination with molecular gastronomy—a trend built on tinkering with food, using chemicals like calcium chloride and transglutaminase (“meat glue”) and unconventional cooking techniques to ultimately screw with our senses. Turning shrimp into a gelatinous goo-ball? Now that’s something I take issue with. (Turning melted chocolate into a goo-ball, however, I completely endorse.)

And yet, I tend to agree with Husbands, if only because fake truffle oil feels a bit like deception—especially when I’m shelling out $12 for fries on the assumption that they contain an oil infused with a very precious fungus, sniffed out of the ground by a very smart pig in the southeast of France.

What about you? Does the idea of synthetic truffle oil bother you? Or does it all come down to taste?