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Truffles – The Ultimate Luxury

Ask any chef around the world to name an ingredient unforgettable for unique flavour and sheer indulgence, and the answer is very likely to be truffles – specifically, black from France or white from Italy, in their short season from autumn to winter.

Charcoal black or creamy white, dug up from the embrace of tree roots and soil, there’s no mistaking their aroma and flavour – pungent yet delicate, earthy freshly-ploughed soil, savoury, woody, nutty, a little musky, a touch of sweetness. Flagrantly fragrant, definitely distinctive, and quite intoxicating.

There’s a mystique to these precious nuggets too. Consider that a delicacy rare and prized on the plates of the super-rich in luxury restaurants is actually a fungus that’s smelt out and harvested in damp, off-the-beaten-track forests by pigs or specially trained dogs.

Just picture the French farmer and his 600-pound pig, tramping through an oak forest in the Périgord on a late-autumn morning – that pig is so completely addicted to truffles that it’s like a heroin junkie out for his next fix, and when he smells his prize, he’s off, rooting around to unearth a nice big truffle and snag a thousand-euro bite before the farmer can wedge his mouth open to retrieve the bounty.

That battle of wills between pig and farmer has to be one of the most unique ways that any food is harvested – and it’s no wonder that it’s more usual these days to have more easily trained and disciplined dogs hunting for truffles.

Part of the mystique comes from truffles being hard to find in the wild, and hard to cultivate or grow commercially. Then there are the eye-watering prices commanded when tycoons and celebrities compete for the biggest specimens at auctions in historic palaces and flashy casinos. There’s the intrigue of a highly secretive supply chain where it’s both who and what you know that counts. Dodgy dealers, fraud, theft, an underground black-market – it all adds up to the stuff of a thriller movie.

The truffle so prized that in the restaurant kitchen they’re stored in a temperature-controlled safe or carried carefully wrapped in tissue paper in the chef’s pocket for the finest slivers to be shaved over as the finishing touch to a dish, just 10g or so at a time. The tiny quantity is partly about the expense – the going price in the trade around €300/100g for French black truffles, or €700/100g for its even more prized cousin, the Alba white truffle – but also because truffles bring such a punch of intense flavour that you don’t need more.

Although truffles are being cultivated now across the globe from Asia to the Americas, and you can buy them preserved, dried, frozen, infused into cheese, honey, salt or oils, there’s just no comparison to the texture, consistency and flavour of a fresh white Italian truffle from Alba in autumn, or the winter black truffles from the Périgord in France.

That very specific seasonality, the importance of origin, the fact that, like wine, their growing and quality depends greatly on the right combination of soils, climate and weather in a specific place, and that a fresh truffle has a shelf-life of mere days – it’s all part of what makes the truffle a food of luxury.

And yet for something so intriguing, so indulgent, the secret to its enjoyment lies in simplicity.

Truffles don’t belong in elaborate dishes of eight or 10 ingredients, even less so in absurd creations of the “world’s most expensive” burger or pizza or cheesecake or other latest fad. Their delicacy and complexity is completely lost – a waste of a fabulous, and fabulously expensive, ingredient.

Give me two to three ingredients, of the best quality, and let the truffle be the king of the plate.

Creating a dish with truffles takes understanding of the ingredient and how to highlight and balance its unique aroma, flavour and texture. The combinations that work best play on the truffle’s earthiness and savouriness, and balance it with richness and creaminess – think asparagus, parmesan, foie gras…

Black truffle and port elevate a perfectly cooked beef filet to one of the most beautiful dishes in the world. A white truffle risotto with parmesan, clean and elegant, or the colour and texture contrasts of fresh linguine tossed through with truffle cream and topped with shaved black truffle. A few shavings of black truffles lift even a gourmet mac ‘n cheese to something extraordinary.

You just cannot substitute the unique flavour of a fresh truffle, in season and from the best location, that came out of the ground just yesterday. Anything else belongs in the Second Division.

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