Summer Truffle: Winter Truffle's Neglected Sister

Scoffed at by some chefs as the cheap truffle, the summer truffle need not carry this reputation. It is less potent in taste and aroma than the winter truffle, however light summer dishes are a perfect match for this particular delicacy. Since food costs are one of the many stress-factors in a chef's day-to-day running of the business, the summer truffle's palatable price tag should be more than welcome.

Like all other produce, truffles come in and out of season. There are three varieties of truffle that are staples in the walk-ins of the top kitchens: the white truffle from Alba (tartufo bianco di Alba), the winter truffle (truffe d'hiver or truffe noir du Périgord) and the summer truffle (truffe d 'été or truffe de la Saint-Jean). Each is harvested at different times of the year; however, to meet demands throughout the year, purveyors freeze or jar the winter ones in mid January when they're at their peak.

The summer truffle is harvested from June to late August, and while it's a refreshing and seasonal alternative to its more glamorously potent sisters, the summer truffle barely gets a sniff from certain chefs (Christian Delouvrier of Lespinasse only uses winter truffles and has his own in-house jarring system.) Aside from its subtle, earthy flavor and texture, the summer truffle is also gentle on the wallet. Christopher Poron from Plantin (an international purveyor of truffles, dried porcini and morels) represents his family's truffle business in the United States. Christopher says that white truffles go for about $1,200/lb., the winter truffles for around $350/lb., and the summer for a comparatively measly $90/lb. He sells a lot of summer truffle to many top chefs across the country including Sylvain Portay and Rocco DiSpirito.

Chef Sylvain Portay of The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco looks at summer truffles as an opportunity to incorporate a seasonal product into his summer menu so his guests can experience new items. He believes that while summer truffles are light, they subtly heighten the flavor of the dish while adding to the presentation. However, Norman Van Aken of Norman's in Coral Gables says, "I buy summer truffles, but I make sure the waiters know we're talking about a different member of the family. The fragrance is a fraction of the white [Alba] or black [winter], but it can be stimulating."

Rocco DiSpirito, chef at Union Pacific in New York City, canned about 200 pounds of winter truffles this year. All the same, he embraces summer truffle season as a "time to be frivolous with truffles. It feels good to throw it into things. " Summer truffles may be a lot less costly, but Chef DiSpirito won't be found shaving any into the garbage can...he and other experienced chefs give us their tips on how to buy, properly store, and prepare delicious seasonal dishes with them.

It is true that a well-trained staff conserves all product from potatoes to truffles: the purchaser deftly separates very good from superior in both quality and price, the cooks store and prepare with a 'no waste' attitude, and the waiters sell what's taking up precious shelf space. But, it's not all work and no play. Summer truffles give reason to experiment. So, if you' re feeling sassy one evening, shave a little extra on top of that VIP's summer truffle special.

Jocelyn Morse, Features Desk

Published: 2000