You’ve probably never heard of Ian Purkayastha, but if you’ve ever been to a top restaurant in New York, chances are good that you’ve actually eaten his food: He sells truffles, caviar and other fine ingredients to about 90 percent of the city’s Michelin-endorsed restaurants—and more than 300 fine dining institutions across the country.
Ian has an unconventional story: At age 15, his first taste of truffles sparked a teenage career as a high-end truffle dealer. By age 19, he’d founded his own importing company, Regalis Foods. His new memoir, Truffle Boy: My unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground, details the story of how a boy from a small town in Arkansas went from living an idyllic life in the Ozarks to navigating the dynamic world of the New York City food scene—all before the age of 25.
To celebrate his new line of Regalis truffle products at Williams Sonoma, Ian recently stopped into our test kitchen to treat us to his homemade black truffle uni carbonara and give us a primer on truffles. Keep reading to learn six fun facts that we learned about black and white truffles.
1. Where do truffles grow? Maybe not where you’d think.
While the world may associate black truffles with Périgord and white truffles with Piemonte, the truth is that France has exhausted most of its black truffle supply and most white truffles don’t actually hail from Italy. Ian estimates that roughly 90 percent of the world’s white truffles come from Eastern Europe, thanks to countries like Serbia, Hungary and Macedonia (as well as other regions of Italy such as Tuscany and Umbria). Surprisingly, Australia cultivates much of the world’s Tuber melanosporin (black winter truffle).
2. There are actually 15 common edible truffle species.
Tuber melanosporin is actually just one of 15 common edible truffle species, and other species, such as the inferior Chinese truffle (Tuber himalayensis) look nearly identical. Unless they’re sent to mycologists for testing, the different truffle species can be difficult to distinguish for an average gourmand—but Ian has so much experience working with truffles that he can now identify each one of them by factors such as shape, color and marbling differences.
3. Black truffles are now being cultivated on a small scale.
“Truffles are the last natural ingredient that’s not commercially cultivated on a large scale,” Ian told us. In fact, white truffles (Tuber magnatum) have eluded cultivation entirely, which is why they are so expensive. Black truffles, however, are now being cultivated on a small scale, using an unconventional method: First, the roots of filbert (hazelnut) trees get inoculated by being dipped in a truffle purée of sorts. Then they are planted in soil that has been alkalinized to a pH of 7.9. With some luck, five years after being planted, truffles will begin to emerge.
Truffle cultivation isn’t without its challenges, however. Ian estimates that of the roughly 200 truffle orchards in the United States, about 80 percent of them are being wiped out due to an unexplained filbert-tree blight.
4. Like wine, truffles are a living organism—and they’re more delicate than you might imagine.
“Truffles are constantly changing,” Ian explained. “They’re a living organism, and they’re constantly passing aroma.” Black or white truffles are extremely delicate: By the time they get to you, they only have a shelf life of only about five days, and he keeps them wrapped in a paper towel to absorb excess moisture, then stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Don’t wrap truffles in plastic, and ignore that old adage to store them in rice: It reduces their shelf life by half, because the rice wicks moisture out of the truffle. For something less perishable, turn to truffle-infused products, like honey, oil or butter, which have a significantly longer shelf life.
5. If you have a fresh truffle, you should be taking full advantage of its aroma.
Since truffles are a living organism, “they’re constantly passing aroma,” Ian explains. This means that other fresh, porous ingredients, like eggs or butter, will take on a pleasant aroma if they’re stored in the same container as the truffle. So if you’re blessed with a fresh truffle, be sure to take full advantage of its flavor on other ingredients!
6. Truffles aren’t just for popcorn!
Although truffles are a popular flavoring agent for popcorn, Ian points out that there are so many other ways to enjoy their aroma. One of his favorite ways to enjoy truffle is shaved directly onto vanilla ice cream. (If you can’t get your hands on a fresh truffle, we highly recommend re-creating this with a drizzle of his truffle honey instead.)
Get to know more about Ian Purkayastha with our video, and shop all of our Regalis truffle products.