If I shut my eyes, I can remember a time when I’d order a plain pasta pomodoro and mac and cheese came just as it was. My chips were sprinkled only with a dash of flaky sea salt. A much simpler time.
A time before truffle.
Then, truffle took over, sending the London food scene into a state of mushroom-induced delirium. Now, seemingly every morsel on every menu is swimming in a thick pungent oil or is scattered with shavings of the crusty, nobbly little creatures. My TikTok For You Page is an explosion of sweaty cheese wheels and twirling forkfuls of truffley pastas. ‘You’ve got to try this new spot in Soho,’ an influencer’s voice proclaims. ‘We had the truffle fries, the truffle pasta and this incredible truffle cocktail with a truffle emulsion.’
And though the Big Mamma Group – the hyped Italian restauranteurs responsible for the likes of Gloria and Circolo Popolare – might be the first to come to mind when thinking about the truffle takeover (Jacuzzi’s spaghetti al tartufo comes in a creamy truffle sauce with parmesan foam, I tell you), all the big dogs on the London pasta scene seem to be onto it. The likes of Bancone, Padella and Flour & Grape’s rotating menus see truffle pasta pop up pretty much every season. Right now, Emilia’s Crafted Pasta is doing a truffled cacio e pepe, which is basically FoodTok’s wet dream.
Then you have the downright absurd: Truffle Burger now has six branches in London alone, specialising in, yep, putting truffle mayo in burgers. There’s the reign of the truffle and parmesan chip, from your local pub to Salt Bae, costing anywhere from £4 to £16. And lest we forget the whole of north-east London making £5 Torres truffle crisps their entire personality, à la Real Housewives of Clapton. Or the god-forsaken Truffle Marmite which was in everyone’s stocking last year. How the hell did we get here? And is there any going back?
The not-so-humble hype
‘Truffle is a beautiful ingredient,’ says chef Daniel Lee, who won ‘Masterchef: The Professionals’ in 2021. ‘It’s just ridiculously overused at the moment.’ He pauses and takes a deep breath. ‘I’m trying not to go on a rant here.’
Lee was once asked to do an eight-course tasting menu, where truffle had to be in every single dish. There was white truffle in the starter and black truffles in the dessert. ‘Sure, each of the meals worked,’ he says. ‘But if you’re putting eight courses of truffle together? That’s all you’re tasting.’
He adds: ‘What irks me is throwing it in any dish, just for the sake of it. Just for the hype.’
But where did ‘the hype’ come from? Truffles take around five years to cultivate and are only harvested from about December to March, though it varies from type to type. That’s a good eight months of the year where even the piggies can’t get at ‘em. (Nowadays, people tend to use trained dogs to get at them from eight inches under the ground.)
Being a very rare, very expensive ingredient – usually only found in Spain, Italy and France and costing an average of £1,100 per kilo – truffle has become a signifier of money. Of class. The sort of class that, apparently, everyone wants a taste of.
Doing up posh
Over the last few years, posting truffles on your Instagram story would give you the same sort of social clout as having Aesop soap in your bathroom or a large monstera on your window sill.
‘There’s this kind of idea that nothing should be denied to us because of cost these days,’ says Annie Gray, a food historian and author of ‘Call the Midwife: The Official Cookbook’. ‘And while I sort of applaud that from one point of view, there is a reason some of these things are really expensive. And that’s just market forces: truffles are very, very hard to get hold of and it’s very expensive to buy real ones.’
In other words, one wants what one can’t have, particularly in the case of nobbly little nuggets that the pigs brought home. ‘Because they’re seen as something desirable, inevitably, everyone wants to them,’ Gray says. ‘You therefore end up with lower quality truffles and synthetic truffles, because it makes us feel posh.’
Posting truffles on your Instagram story gave you the same social clout as having Aesop soap in your bathroom
In the olden days, food was a clear signifier of rich and poor. Gray says truffle’s hype mirrors that of chicken in the 1950s and salmon in the 1960s, which are now as common as anything. ‘The problem with it,’ she says, ‘is that the more demand there is, the more people produce things, and we end up with something which is environmentally really unsustainable.’
Truffle became an uncontested status symbol, filling Michelin-starred menus and squeezing the likes of Mayfair and Chelsea into an inescapable chokehold, up there with lobster, gold leaf and the rise of the £15 burrata. Before long, everyone wanted a piece of the action: if you were doing up posh, you were doing up truffle.
Pasta and lobster
Thus brings us to the next stage of the takeover, in 2019, where every vaguely high-end London restaurant slapped it on their menu without a second thought. Suddenly truffle wormed its way into your arancini at The Ivy, your Chiltern Firehouse toastie, your xiao long bao at Din Thai Fung and your Duck & Waffle scrambled eggs. ‘Truffle is seen as elegant,’ says Lee, ‘so people just want to buy it – no matter if they understand how it’s used or not.’
A slim shaving of truffle has such a powerful flavour, it works best when it’s used sparingly. ‘The best way to use truffle is in raw, fresh, thin slices, to get the maximum flavour and aroma – not covering something in truffle oil without any thought to the dish,’ says Lee. ‘What’s the obsession with truffle and parmesan fries? Smother it in truffle, you’ll taste nothing else. It drives me insane.’
The biggest culprits of the choke-it-in-truffle culinary technique? The pasta restaurants.
‘It’s all to do with TikTok and Instagram trends,’ says Lee of truffle’s rapid takeover. ‘There’s restaurants literally built for Instagram. They build massive flower walls. They use dry ice in their meals. They’ll have truffle on the menu. They’ll have some kid of wagyu beef. They’ll have something with gold leaf. It’s a menu put together literally for the Instagram generation. And truffle is a big part of that.’
And thus the ol’ FoodTok took to truffle like a child to candy: influencer after influencer twirling bowls of sticky-looking thick pasta in a black, truffley gloop, like a never-ending nightmare. TikTok made pasta a performative act; truffle arrived hand-in-hand with the ginormous, tableside cheese wheel, just when everything had to be OTT, all oozing, overflowing spaghetti and mile-long cheese pulls. And truffle. So much truffle.
Truffles gone mainstream
And once it had spread like wildfire, there was no going back. Everyone wanted a slice (or a shaving) of the action, from Franco Manca to those damn truffle parmesan fries at your local in Walthamstow. But truffles are expensive (just 50g of the stuff will set you back at least 30 quid, or £115 for white truffle). So how can it be that your truffle arancini was only £6, and your pasta only £14?
Well, it’s not actually truffle you’re getting. Duh. ‘When we started our business ten years ago, we did a lot of farmers markets, and it was kind of a learning experience for customers,’ says Francesco Di Maddaloni, the managing director at Mr Truffle London, a truffle specialist in the capital which sources the little balls from the Italian Apennines mountains. ‘We were basically explaining and teaching what truffle was to everyone who came.’
This, of course, was in the pre-truffle era, or at least truffle as we know it now. ‘Now, truffle is used by everyone, to attract as many customers as possible,’ he says. ‘But it doesn’t matter what you do: truffle will always be a luxury ingredient, because what we can actually supply is less than what we can actually get from our truffle hunters. The demand is always higher than the supply.’
Most of us have eaten more truffle menu items then we can remember and probably never tasted actual truffle in our lives
Di Maddaloni agrees with Lee. ‘How can you have truffle mustard?’ he cries. ‘It is against the nature of the truffle. Mustard is a flavour that will of course cover the truffle. And how can you have truffle pecorino cheese?’ Di Maddaloni explains that some products are chemically-boosted with artificial ingredients, (‘what we call an aroma’), which gives the smell of truffle without using any actual truffle at all.
High end or authentic truffle products use preserved truffle with a very high truffle content, but something like your average truffle oil or mayo will often have a maximum of five percent pure truffle – the rest is olive oil, mushrooms or artificial flavouring. Your fave Torres crisps, in fact, are a lie. They contain just 0.09 percent dehydrated summer truffle and 0.07 percent truffle flavouring.
The truffled truth
But what about the crisps, and the Marmite, and the truffle and parmesan fries? What about the dirty, cheesy creamy truffle pastas, with a side of truffle arancini and truffle oil? ‘I really believe the truffle they are eating is an illusion,’ says Di Maddaloni. ‘When they start checking the ingredients, they will soon realise there is no truffle there.’
The reality is, most of us have eaten more truffle menu items then we can remember, and probably never tasted actual truffle in our lives. ‘The first time I had proper truffle was just in a pasta dish, which was very expensive,’ Gray recalls. ‘I was like, “this is incredible”.’
‘It’s a shame,’ she adds. ‘Truffle should be special. When you meet those people that say they don’t understand the point of truffle, that’s because they’ve only ever had shit truffle.’
So what’s next for our little friends? Truffle might not look like it’s going anywhere, but the food de-influencer movement is right around the corner, and the less we care about the way our meals look on TikTok, the looser its grip on our restaurants. Even burrata was eventually replaced with its milkier cousin stracciatella. But for now? I’m keeping my parmesan fries close.