Eating white truffle with Giorgio Locatelli
“Every year my Grandfather would get us kids together and we’d pile into the back of his Fiat Cinquecento and drive out to some remote garage in the middle of nowhere. He would hand over some cash for one of the new season truffles which had been picked that morning. The smell of it in the car was incredible; we were pickled by the smell. When we got home, I don’t know how she knew, but my Grandmother was always at the final minute of cooking the risotto and we’d get together as a family for an incredible truffle meal.”
This truffle ritual, his Grandmother’s cooking and standing on a crate, making risotto, from the age of six at the restaurant of his Aunt and Uncle were some of the triggers for Giorgio Locatelli’s lifelong passion for cooking. Working his way through some notable kitchens in Europe, he has earned a reputation as the ‘world’s greatest Italian chef’ (restaurateur Tony Allen), a London-based Michelin-starred restaurant Locanda Locatelli as well as his partnership with Ronda Locatelli at Atlantis, Dubai. Later, when I asked him what keeps him inspired in the kitchen he said “the ingredients”. His wife asks him how he can get so excited about truffle season yet again but, as he says this, he rubs his hands and grins widely. He still retains the enthusiasm of a six-year-old.
I’m at Ronda Locatelli for the launch of this season’s truffle menu. It includes a cookery demo by Giorgio which we then get to eat. He’s ebullient and energetic and uses expressive English vocabulary almost as though he’s speaking Italian. He imparts rapid-fire, detailed instructions about every stage of the cookery process as well as historical background on the ingredients themselves and what has influenced their use. For example he favours Carnaroli for risotto “a much more elegant grain” but explains that Mussolini’s drive for Italian self-sufficiency caused the planting of Arborio to be widespread.
He says that he is continually striving to use fewer ingredients to make the dishes simpler. “Anyone can add things, but when you leave a restaurant can you remember what you ate? More is a bordello“. This mastery of tastes and textures is demonstrated in the dishes we are served; fresh raviolo filled with a ring of finely mashed potato and an egg yolk; tagliolini slicked with a creamy, butter sauce; parmesan risotto; and zabaglione – all topped with shaved white truffle; simple dishes which in other hands could be very ordinary transformed to ambrosia-like food.
This menu is only for those who adore the musky, umami flavour of fresh, white truffle. “People either love or hate truffle. Sometimes when they hear I am serving it in the restaurant they don’t come in. I like that. I want food to strike a very strong emotion and when it does I’ve achieved something.”
Giorgio visits Umbria at the start of every truffle season and it sounds like a macho-bonding session for lads (not washing, keeping dogs in the dark, getting up at dawn then sitting around a camp fire eating a slice of fresh truffle with bread and some fried eggs). The French use pigs where the Italians use dogs “and that shows the difference between us and the French” he quips. The Italian dogs are very highly trained and will signal the degrees of ripeness (one paw raised means unripe, two paws raised means ripe). The Umbrian truffle season is slightly earlier than in Piedmont as it is further South. The whole environment must be perfect for a truffle to thrive and they will not grow in an aeroplane flight path, near to a road or electricity pylon and are very susceptible to pesticides and chemicals. They grow between 10-20 cm underground, nearer the surface if they are close to streams or deeper near trees where they nestle by the roots (lower humidity). Giorgio calls the truffle ” the highest expression of nature”. He cut into one of the knobbly beige fungi and showed us a stripe of red meaning it had grown next to a tree root of an oak tree indicating a higher quality truffle. Foods high in protein go well with truffle but no other flavour can balance it. Eggs are a match made in heaven.
During the session Giorgio tell us about the land he has acquired in Sicily for a project with his daughter. It has taken six years to plant and grow an olive grove to produce his own olive oil and he said it was a great lesson about simplicity, putting passion and love into cooking, and that the island had given him a really vibrant feeling about food. It reminded him of his childhood where there was never TV in the room they were eating, not even radio and he strives to recreate the conviviality of family eating in his restaurants. “A meal is not just about the food. I would rather eat mediocre food with people I love than an exceptional meal by myself.” I agree in principle but would happily skulk off into a corner with a bowl of the risotto or a raviolo by myself. This is good, soul-satisfying food at its very best.
Eight top tips from Giorgio Locatelli about making fresh pasta:
- Eggs in the pasta helps the flavour of the truffle
- Make your pasta with 3 whole eggs, 2 egg yolks and 500g ‘OOO’ flour. Mix until crumbly then bring together in plastic wrap.
- Leave your pasta dough in the fridge for 24 hours to rest
- For home use you can store the dough for up to 7 days in the fridge
- When you roll out the pasta, store the sheets and spare dough under a damp cloth or give it a little spray of water to stop it drying out
- It’s best to cook shapes (like tagliolini) a day after you have made them so they dry out a little.
- Pasta shapes can to vary a little, it’s good to look homemade. Food doesn’t have to be perfect it just has to be good.
- Don’t add oil to the cooking water. If you want extra flexibility put a spoonful of oil into the dough
P.S. I bought Giorgio’s new book Made in Sicily this week (in Kinokuniya Dubai), which looks at the ingredients, history and some of the local cooks and growers of the island as well as very simple, authentic Sicilian recipes. Good reference and a great read.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Atlantis Dubai at the demonstration.