Ever since I first tried truffles in a restaurant in Zurich, I get excited when the Northern Hemisphere winter comes around and I can look forward to fresh black winter truffles.
Many years ago, when I worked in publishing in Sydney, my right-hand-man had a tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend who was head chef for one of Australia’s best known fine dining restaurateurs. Our little design department was comprised of keen foodies, even though the word hadn’t really reached general acceptance back then, and we used to love hearing his stories from the kitchen of one of Sydney’s best restaurants.
As summer came and most Australian’s thoughts turned to cricket, BBQs and the beach, foodie talk turned to truffles. How much would they be this season? Where are they coming from? Which chef has managed to source the best truffles? Which truffle dish should we try?
At the time, I thought all this truffle talk was crazy. Firstly, these little turd-like lumps were outrageously expensive. Secondly, in my opinion, they stunk. Thirdly, why was everyone so snobbish about them. They were just mushrooms, right?
A couple of years later, on a winter trip to Zurich from our new base in Abu Dhabi, we went to a well-known Italian restaurant in the old town centre. It was early winter and the restaurant advertised a truffle menu. When we entered the cosy restaurant there was an aroma I can still remember today. Fresh truffles. As I glanced around the room, waiters were proudly shaving truffles onto diners plates. They fell as delicately as the snowflakes outside the restaurant. I had to try them again.
Soon to be relieved of an enormous amount of Swiss Francs, my order of Tagliatelle with truffle cream sauce and fresh truffles arrived. The waiter, like a Swiss Michael Jackson, wore a glove on one hand. This hand shaved amazingly thin slices of truffles onto my pasta while Lara wondered whether our bank in Abu Dhabi would be calling us shortly to query the transaction and see why we spent €45 on a plate of pasta. She was unimpressed. Until she tried some.
I actually can’t remember what Lara ordered. I can just remember her asking me for more mouthfuls of my pasta throughout the meal. They weren’t given up easily. While we’ve done countless truffle-based tasting menus since while exploring the winter gastronomy scene in Europe over the years, that experience is one of the most memorable.
But my favourite truffle memory comes from none other than Calabria, in the far south of Italy, where we were writing a guidebook. We were staying in a very grand bed and breakfast in a wonderful country mansion owned by a Baron and Baroness from Napoli. They invited us to dine with them at their favourite local eatery.
While the emphasis of the multi-course meal was porcini mushrooms, hand picked that day from the local mountains, during the meal we had some roast potatoes with rosemary, which arrived with a huge truffle and a truffle shaver so everyone could help themselves. The baron liberally helped himself raining slices down onto his huge dish of potatoes. Once he was satisfied, he handed the truffle and shaver to me. Bliss.
After that experience, I was determined to buy fresh truffles when in season and cook my own truffle-based dishes. Since then, I’ve used whole truffles, truffle picker’s paste and truffle oil to varying degrees of success, but none can compare to using fresh seasonal truffles.
I’d seen truffles in Paris when we were there early in the year but baulked at the price, but here in Vienna at the Naschmarkt, just a short walk from our apartment, there were truffles for sale at a number of delicatessens and they were reasonably priced. And we had a good kitchen in our apartment too.
These were all black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) and while they were purported to be from Alba, the northern Italian city is actually renowned for its white truffles (Tuber magnatum). After a few passes of all the delicatessens, I went with the one that had the best selection.
Over the years, chefs have told me what to look for. Firstly, the truffle needs to have a strong aroma. These ones had that classic pungent aroma of black truffles but weren’t as strong as some that I had smelt in restaurant kitchens. While it wasn’t really an overpowering aroma, the truffles had promise. They were firm to the touch, too, which usually means they’re quite fresh, and the exteriors were very rough also, but without holes. Seeing the price was right (€18 for one truffle) we went home happily with a walnut-sized truffle*.
I didn’t have time to do a crazy ten-course truffle tasting menu, so I decided to spread the truffle over three different dishes.
Firstly, I decided to do a beef filet with a Périgord Sauce (essentially a red wine sauce with truffles) and truffled mash. The next morning I cooked up some creamy scrambled eggs with truffles (more on that soon) and that night I made fresh porcini mushroom ravioli with a truffle cream sauce.
Was it worth it? Well, the truffle and the ingredients to make the three dishes cost the same as that one truffle pasta dish I had in Zurich all those years ago. It was worth every Euro cent.
*A couple of chefs have have emailed me to say that the truffle was probably a ‘Burgundy’ or black Autumn truffle (Tuber Uncinatum) from Italy, which explains the less heady aroma of the truffle and the reasonable price. These were coming to the end of the season at the time of purchase.