Pros: Detailed guide to a little-known and lesser-understood area
Cons: This is still a relatively new field in the US and thus there are yet many unknowns
Rating: 5 out of 5
The Field Guide to North American Truffles: Hunting, Identifying, and Enjoying the World’s Most Prized Fungi is based on the work of the North American Truffling Society (NATS) and authored by three expert mycologists: Matt and James Trappe and Frank Evans. Before this book my exposure to truffles had been limited to such things as a tiny bit of white truffle oil, or a rare bit of truffle shaving in a recipe at a nice restaurant. As far as I knew truffles only came in two varieties—black and white, both used in a culinary fashion—and they were something dug up overseas, and pigs were involved, right?
Well, now I certainly know much more about truffles than I did before! For one, there are plenty of ways to hunt for truffles that don’t involve pigs (although truffle-hunting dogs are apparently quite handy). For another, there are tons of truffles to be found in North America. And for yet another, truffles come in all sorts of varieties, only some of which are culinary useful, and a number of which are even actively inedible.
If you’re thinking of picking this up just so you can jaunt out to the woods and grab some food for dinner, you might want to think twice—given the number of inedible fungi out there (some toxic), the authors do recommend that amateurs wanting edible truffles take along a more experienced truffle hunter until they’ve got the hang of it. If you think that hunting truffles would make a cool hobby however, particularly given the newness of the sport and the possibility for finding and identifying new species, this is an indispensable book to have in your pocket.
Along with an introduction covering plenty of general tips on truffle hunting, the book includes detailed pages on many species of truffle. These include photographs, of course, generally with something to indicate the relative size of a truffle, such as a coin, ruler, penknife, or someone’s hands. It’s amazing to note the vast range of colors, patterns, shapes, sizes, etc. among truffles! The season during which each truffle can be found is noted; for instance, the Trappea darkeri’s season is April—November. Distribution comes next, anything from the vague “Western North America” to the incredibly specific “Only in western Oregon and northern California in lowland to foothill forests.” Habitat describes, usually, the type of trees under which the truffle variety is found; for instance, Leucangium brunneum is found “with sapling to large Douglas-firs in moist forests (especially in the western Cascades and the Coast Range).”
Since photos and descriptions sometimes aren’t enough for identification, spore information is included as well—starting with a photograph of the spores (generally taken through a microscope). Spore notes include size in micrometers and a general description, and sometimes include notes on the particular dye or solution used to bring out certain features.
“Features” and “Comments” sections provide plenty of information to help you further identify the particular fungus you’ve found, often including internal physical details found upon cutting the specimen open as well as notes on odor and culinary value.
Finally, each entry ends with a brief section labeled simply “DR” for “desirability rating,” or how desirable the NATS has deemed the truffle to be for culinary uses. This ranges from unknown or inedible to the entertaining label of ‘insipid’, the damning-with-faint-praise ‘palatable,’ and finally a rare few species labeled tasty or delicious.
It’s a pretty nifty read even if you aren’t thinking of taking up truffling; it opens your eyes to the fact that there’s a whole world of life beneath the forest floor that you didn’t even know was there. And if you do think you you’d be interested in digging up some truffles, well, this is an absolutely invaluable little book for helping you to figure out what you’ve got on your hands!