Taste the difference: black and white truffles
There’s no love lost between the English and the French…but this rivalry doesn’t seem to extend to food. Perhaps English food is beneath the gaze of the Gallic nation; and the British attitude to food tends to be as an adjunct to our lives rather than an all-encompassing central focus.
However antipathy between the French and the Italians comes to head when food is on the agenda. Ask a countryman of either nation about a shared ingredient or classic dish of the other and the reaction will usually be something along the line of ‘what do they know’ accompanied by the throwing up of hands or the shrugging of shoulders. With many prized ingredients and dishes in common (e.g. minestrone topped with pesto, soup a la pistou) and a passion for tradition and authenticity perhaps the similarities are just too close for comfort.
Truffles are a prime example. The Italians head out into the forests during October and November with dogs to seek out the white truffle (Tuber magnatum) and truffle fairs are held where prices for this knobbly fungi are legendary. The French use pigs to root up black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) the best specimens are reputedly from the Perigord (not to be confused with the summer or burgundy truffle – Tuber aestivum/uncinatum). Do the English have truffles? Yes, they grow on our Isles but only the most dedicated forager ever samples their delights.
I’ll admit to a strong bias, having sampled the new season truffle menu many times at Ronda Locatelli at Atlantis, I had been totally seduced by the simple dishes (from risotto to pasta) which showcase the musky attractions of the white truffle. I was interested to step across the corridor into Rostang for a chance to try new season French black truffles flown in from the Perigord.
Michel Rostang gained fame and his first Michelin partly due to his creation of the black truffle sandwich. This was the first thing we tried at a dinner held to showcase a special new season truffle menu. Chef Cyril Jeannot brought round the sandwich wrapped in cling film in its raw state. For the flavour of the filling to permeate the butter and bread, it is kept in the fridge for three days. It amused me to see us all sniffing a sandwich, like a bizarre dining ritual.
A black truffle was also passed around. At first I was surprised at how weak the scent was compared to fresh white truffles. But after holding for a few moments I suddenly smelled a strong but elusive porcine aroma giving way to a much more complex layer of scents. It was like the forest floor with hints of green herbs, moss and earth.
Simple carbohydrates and fats are the perfect foil for truffle flavours; would anything on this menu live up to Giorgio Locatelli’s truffle risotto or raviolo uovo with a shaving of truffle? The butter from the sandwich had melted into the toasted bread, it was like elements of a luxurious fried breakfast. I tried to be restrained but finished the lot.
Next was la terrine de foie gras, poireaux truffes; You’d expect the foie gras to be the star wouldn’t you, but it was the soft, buttery leeks that won the day. A puree of artichoke was lovely although it revealed why French cuisine is often not vegetarian-friendly – there was foie gras in the purée! They were lovely flavours but quite rich and salty after the other things we’d tasted. Finally we had a choice of chicken roasted with black truffles under the skin or sea bass. Although the chicken choosers raved about the sauce (which was really good) I was delighted with my fish dish as it was the closest to that ambrosial carbo-truffle combination that takes you away from the table and off into heavenly clouds of sensory enjoyment. The beautifully cooked sea bass fillet was accompanied by a little mound of creamy, buttery mashed potato flecked with black truffle.
Dessert and truffles are a bit contrived to me, I’d rather have a savoury dish however glorious Locatelli’s truffle zabaglioni is. A simple baked apple with almonds and black truffle was an unexpected treat. The apple, an old, traditional, French variety called Reinette Clochard (I refuse to use the word heirloom here), quite similar to a Russet in taste and texture, a drop of creme fraiche or cream would have been my only addition.
So I’ll get off the fence now. In the black versus white truffle head to head which was my favourite? Whether it’s the Italian seduction technique or the indefinable muskiness of the taste and scent of the white truffle, the tartufo bianco remains in pole position for me.
A fresh, white truffle has a compelling aroma that makes you want to inhale deeply, somewhere between a chamois leather and the rind of a ripe brie but with the delicacy of a spring flower. The flavours give a nod to the mushroom but in umami-ness, earthy and nuttiness. The appeal is so irresistible that a friend of mine was compelled to eat dirt when in Piedmont (completely understandable). However the black truffle had different qualities which make it a very special gastronomic experience. With the Italian season over, I’m quite happy to move over the border.
You can taste this menu yourself as part of Truffes Janvier 2013 at Rostang from Thursday 17th – Sunday 20th January, 2013. On Friday 18th January, 2013 Celebrity chef Michel Rostang himself will host a special dinner where every dish features the tasty truffle. Diners will be offered a rare chance to mingle with the culinary star. More info here
So to borrow a line from Michael Jackson, ‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white”…unless you’re a truffle.
What’s your experience of truffles? Love them, hate them or think they are over-rated? Have you tried (or foraged for) an English truffle? Or in other parts of the world? Or never tried them (truffle oil which generally contains no truffle at all does not count!)?
- French truffle thieves face military threat (guardian.co.uk)
- Precious White Truffles (edinburghfoody.com)
- IHT Rendezvous: The Trouble With Truffles (rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com)
- English truffles; where to find them (guardian.co.uk)
- Eating white truffle with Giorgio Locatelli (mycustardpie.com)
- Truffle, risotto and the perfect pasta from Giorgio Locatelli (mycustardpie.com)
- On moderation and militants (mycustardpie.com)
- The truffle hunter and his dog (lifeinthefoodlane.com)