Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

On the Scent of Truffles

AvatarApril 2010. We’re off to the truffle fair in Sorges, a tiny village in the Périgord. It’s winter (that’s when the best truffles appear) and there’ s some way to travel, so we have to get up in the dark – an acid test of my enthusiasm for that entrancing tuber, the black truffle (Tuber melanosporum, to be botanically exact). As we near the village a roadside sign looms: “The finest truffles in the world are from Périgord”. Fifty metres on another sign proclaims “The finest truffles of Périgord are from Sorges”.

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The village seems to be deserted. Have we come on the wrong day? We make our way along a cobbled alley, passing the Truffle Museum (firmly closed), to a cluster of stone buildings some distance from the main street. At last, to our relief, signs of life. A small queue is formed outside a striped marquee, the entrance flap of which is guarded by a rugged-looking man with a brass handbell. He and the queue pretend not to be aware of each other. Over his shoulder we see a group of people passing from table to table, perusing objects at each of them and then passing on to the next. That, it transpires, is the committee that classes approved truffles as Categorie I or Categorie II.

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Somebody gives a nod to the doorman, who rings the bell and pulls open the flap. We and the rest of the truffle hunters pile in, each and every one of us pushing in different directions. We must look like an unaggressive rugby scrum. We wriggle our way through a score of bodies, all at different angles, until we arrive at the first table with even the smallest gap before it. The truffle vendors look very diffident (“we’re not twisting your arm to buy!”), ignoring the clusters of jet-black truffles lying in front of them, arranged into separate clusters of Categorie I and Categorie II grades. Tiny scales, like those used by jewellers, are on hand, allowing each truffle’s weight to be determined to the nearest fraction of a gramme. The vendors, it seems, are not all peasants: they simply happen to own a patch of land on which truffles grow. Some are teachers, others doctors or dentists, others still factory workers or market gardeners.

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Truffles are capricious. They can be cultivated but the results are seldom good. In exceptionally hot years they might respond to watering but those who try this approach seldom repeat it: the truffles then refuse to grow for years thereafter. The best black truffles are uniformly dark, round, and weighty. That’s as regards appearance. The really crucial test is how they smell. And this is where, today, my forty years’ experience as wine taster proves to be invaluable.

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Given the huge value of each truffle it’s important to obtain eye-contact with the vendor, who nods tacit approval of your handling his truffle. You pick it up, weigh it in your palm, and then give it a very thorough sniff. The best ones emit a perfume of incredible intensity, impossible to describe. The closest I can get is to compare it with the aroma of a great vintage port, without the alcohol, or of a top Pomerol at its very peak. There’s an elusive scent of raspberry, plus hints of exotic flowers and the finest of mushrooms. There’ s an almost sensuous element too – indeed, the French insist that the truffle is an aphrodisiac (but they say that about most things; most French things at least).

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I don’t know if it’s the year, 2010, or the way they’ve been stored, but more than a few of the truffles I nose have a slightly mouldy smell. But some are utterly pure, if not of maximum aromatic strength – clearly 2010 is a good but not great year. That irresistible aroma wafts forth, making the senses reel and tempting you to throw financial caution to the winds. The sums demanded are huge; but a perfect truffle at, say, forty pounds, can transform a whole series of meals if used with skill and imagination. In addition, the price in Paris or London would be at least three times’ higher.

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When you think of it, an impecunious food-lover on the spot is better placed, in the truffle context, than the billionaire eating lower-quality truffles at ten times the cost elsewhere.

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Truffles are being snapped up on all sides, with big gaps appearing on every table. The best ones will soon be gone, so instant action is imperative. I return to the table with the best array, noting that two excellent truffles whose configurations I had memorized are still unsold. I get them weighed, and pay the dizzyingly high price that’s asked. (I also register, by the way, that a couple of truffles with a slightly mouldy smell had been snapped up by somebody!). Each of my two truffles is put into its own plastic pocket and I force my way through the crush to a small stand manned by an elderly chap whose sole task is to vacuum-pack truffles. He puts each plastic pocket, one at a time, inside a small cabinet, closes the lid, and presses a button. Before your eyes the plastic writhes briefly then wraps itself around the truffle. In this state it will stay fresh for about a week; pop it in the freezer and it can be kept for months. My two truffles go into my deepest inside pocket, which I pat occasionally to make sure it’s still secure.

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We’re about to leave when we realize that we don’t have any truffles for immediate use – an unthinkable situation. I force my way back into the fair, making a beeline for another table with good truffles. One very large one has a better scent then many, though it’s only a Categorie II (maybe due to its knobbly form), and I offer to buy it if the vendor, as a gesture of good will, agrees to throw in a small but perfectly formed Categorie I at a reduced price. He accepts.

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We now have fresh truffles for immediate consumption in France and two vacuum-pached ones to carry back to England.

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The classic black truffles from Périgord (Photo : Mubariz Hussain)

We quit Sorges, pretending to be aghast at how much we’ve spent but actually hugging ourselves at having secured four magnificent truffles at a fraction of what they’d have cost elsewhere. Black diamonds, edible eggs in the spirit of Fabergé, that can not only be enjoyed with the eye but actually consumed, absorbed into one’s physical being, and giving unalloyed pleasure too.

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On the journey back to our house in the Haute Vienne the car begins to reek of truffle. My jacket, too, will smell of truffle for days ahead. Already we’re planning to make use of one of the two fresh truffles right away: a truffle omelette for lunch. Aptly, that truffle, the Categorie II one, is about the size of a hen’s egg, though in fact we’ll only need to use about one-third of it to get the optimal effect.

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The first thing we do on arrival is pop the vacuum-packed ones into the freezer, while the other two (minus the one-third reserved for the omelette) are sealed inside a plastic box containing fresh eggs. Within a few hours the eggs will smell and taste of truffle. So, too, will everything else inside the fridge. lndeed, the whole house will smell of truffles. Even when you’re in another room you know right away when somebody’s opened the fridge door, for the smell of truffle wafts through the whole building.

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Fillets of John Dory, with fresh scallops, ready for cooking – and for the adding of truffles (Photo: Erica Ward)

The rest of that first truffle goes into the cream sauce that accompanies the Bresse chicken that we’ve so thoughtfully bought with that in mind, while another portion will ennoble a dish that features that wonderful fish, John Dory. The last fragment, held over for a third day, will give extra finesse to a velvety sauce served with some roast veal (the best kind of veal, sous la mère, or veal fed on its mothers own milk).

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Almost the last fragment. One small sliver is set aside for addition to my grand cru wine vinegar, which is made on a kind of solera system, using the dregs of the many bottles of great wine that I am obliged to taste – purely in the line of duty, you’ll understand – as a professional wine taster. You won’t believe it, but the vinegar contains not insubstantial amounts of such wines as Musigny, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Chambertin, Léoville Las Cases, Beaucastel, Corton, Hermitage, and Côte Rôtie. The vinegar’s aroma is made still more refined by the addition of dried rose petals. (some of our friends like the vinegar so much they actually take a sip of it).

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Truffles should not really be cooked. The best way to use them is to fold them, at the very last minute, into a refined sauce that’s hot but not boiling. Or to scatter thin slices over meat or fish just before serving. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule. One classic recipe calls for a chicken, preferably from Bresse, to be filled with a farce studded with truffles and then roasted. The crucial point, though, is that the stuffing be inserted the day before, in order that the whole chicken is positively saturated with truffle. Nothing is lost: there’s merely an exchange of aromas and savours. The same is true of an exquisite ravioli dish created by the great Paris chef Alain Dutournier – a sublime fusion of foie gras, Jerusalem artichoke, truffle, and pasta that has to be tasted to be believed.

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The most unusual truffle dish I’ve ever tasted, and also one of the best, was the “rotten egg” creation of the Auberge du Vieux Puits in the wilds of Corbières in southern France (by coincidence it got its third Michelin star a few months after our most recent visit – no connection, of course!). The egg is boiled a year or two earlier and as it ages its yolk turns a blackish-green colour and develops a cheesy sort of taste. It is served on a bed of sliced black truffle in an exquisite sauce and the delectable aftertaste goes on for ages.

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But perhaps the finest truffle dish of my life was made by René Rostaing, who many years ago ran a three-star restaurant in Antibes. It consisted of a glistening dark green globe made up of furled spinach leaves into which were tucked morsels of foie gras. As you cut into this you discovered that at the centre was a whole black truffle the size of a golf ball. The sauce upon which this rested was so bewitchingly scented, and so delicious, as to be indescribable – and totally unforgettable. It had been cooked – more probably steamed – with the utmost delicacy. A second less, the truffle would have been raw. A second more, overcooked. A rare case of perfection.

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I’ve just remembered another perfect dish: Crème de lentilles aux truffes at the great Taillevent restaurant in Paris. A shallow bowl appears before you, containing the finest lentils I’ve ever eaten (they had the consistency of poached eggs) with a layer of cream on top. The cream was dotted with tiny cubes of raw black truffle. The smell was so enticing you find yourself spending the first minute or two just inhaling. The first spoonful brings a mixture of truffle, cream, and lentils that’s so tasty that dialogue is reduced to faint whimpers of enjoyment. The truffle element intensifies with every mouthful – covering the bottom of the dish is a positive shoal of still more diced truffle, which serves to double then triple the flavour. With this, the perfect accompaniment: a mature Chevalier-Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive, a wine that smelled uncannily like truffles. This had been sent over by the late owner of the restaurant, Jean-Claude Vrinat, who used to play down his extraordinary generosity with the words: “between wine lovers one does not discuss money!”.

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A great Burgundy wine-maker, Michel Gouges, once told me of another way of using truffles. Friends of his in the Cognac region, he told me, used each year to place a whole fresh truffle in a pot, cover it with the finest cognac, and then seal it hermetically. After a number of years the seal would be broken, to reveal that the truffle had entirely melted, leaving an ethereal essence, literally the spirit of truffle, a few drops of which would transform an omelette or a sauce.

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Some of the dishes I’ve described belong to haute cuisine, the kind of food only found in fine – and very expensive – restaurants. It should never be forgotten that, through the ages, truffles have been the preserve of peasants, who always attached too much importance to good eating to allow themselves to sell all of their truffles, no matter how high a price they could command. Thus one of the best truffle dishes of all is a peasant dish: the finest of potatoes cooked to a turn, then anointed with butter or olive oil and a generous layer of sliced black truffles.

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WINES WITH TRUFFLES

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One of the wisest remarks on choosing wines to go with food was made to me by the late Count Matushka, who not only owned and ran the celebrated Schloss Wollrads wine estate in the Rheingau but also directed a two-star Michelin restaurant nearby.

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“Most people make their choice based on the main ingredient, usually fish or meat. But in fact it’s the most intensely-flavoured item that should decide the issue. And it’s usually the sauce.”

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When truffles come into the picture it is they, of course, that ought to determine the choice of wine. All the same, the sauce has a role to play as well. If it’s mainly made of cream, then a white can be ideal, as witness the crème de lentilles aux truffes described above. By the same token, a lot of fish dishes accompanied by truffles show perfectly with white wines.

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But the best wines with truffles, whether red or white, are usually from old vines which, by their very nature, tend to develop tertiary aromas – the sort of complex, often indefinable, aromas that have a natural affinity with the smell of truffles. Such whites often come from vineyards full of marine fossils which, amazingly, still give off a subtle minerality even after millions of years in existence. I think particularly (excuse me if I stick to French wines – my speciality!) of great white Burgundy, not least the grands crus of Puligny and Chassagne; of top Rieslings from Alsace, not to mention Pinot Gris from mature vintages; white Rhônes, especially well-aged Hermitage; and fine white Graves.

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On the red side, mellowness and maturity are again the key. Red Rhônes from the north, especially Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, can come into their own here. Châteauneuf-du-Pape less so, though a ripe Beaucastel – which often has pronouncedly truffly aromas – should work superbly. Pomerol, which often positively reeks of truffle, would be another excellent choice. Many Médocs would be too stern, but some would work very well, not least those with a high percentage of Petit-Verdot, a grape that often has a very truffly scent, especially when mature.

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Last but not least, fine red Burgundy, particularly from the commune of Vosne Romanée. But in fact almost any Premier or Grand Cru from a good grower would do beautifully, especially if at its peak. Years to watch out for (but very hard to find) include ’96, ’93, ’91, ’90, ’89, ’85, and ’78.

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Plenty of more modestly-priced wine are ideal too: I think especially of old-vine Chinons and Saumur Champignys from the Loire, hand-made Beaujolais such as Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent (but definitely not the commercial, mass-produced kind), or a really fine, fleshy Gigondas, Cairanne, or Séguret from the southern Rhône.

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© Frank Ward 2010

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