A surprising thing about truffles
“So can you tell me anything new about truffles?” I said rather cheekily to Chef Giorgio Locatelli as he sat down next to me at the end of the table for our lunch. “As a matter of fact I can…” he replied.
Having met Giorgio annually for many years I’m au fait with his passion for truffles which started in childhood. I know about the ritual of truffle buying when, once a year, all the children would pile into his Grandfather’s tiny Cinquecento and meet up with a man at a scruffy petrol station. Bills would change hands rather secretively ‘like a drug deal’ and the precious truffle would be taken home and used up completely in a celebratory meal of many courses, the simple fare letting the flavour shine.
I’ve learned about the process of hunting for truffles and the skill of the truffle hound, which digs with both paws if the truffle in really ripe, one paw if almost there and just sniff if it’s not ready for picking. I’ve learned the fickleness of the truffle and its reluctance to grown in a flight path or where there is intensive agriculture. Ironic that Alba, the place with the most famous reputation for truffles worldwide, is a huge wine growing region and viticulture can use some of the most intensive practices, probably threatening the truffle. I’ve heard of the practice of passing off truffles from Eastern Europe (truffle laundering), and how to store them (exposed to air and light as little as possible).
Listening to many of these tales again was as captivating as ever as Giorgio is a born raconteur with extensive knowledge and keen interest in everything around his topic – from science to history. The people sitting with me and the lunch table at Atlantis The Palm were equally enthralled.
And then we ate lunch. The usual simple favourites, a dish of silky handmade egg tagliolini, a risotto with masses of butter and Parmesan, a perfect raviolo filled with an egg yolk and pureed potatoes, white pizza with mozzarella and pumpkin, all topped with freshly shaved white truffles. Plain carbs and protein act as a magic blank canvas for the aroma and taste of the musky tuber. People try to put it with other luxurious ingredients, say lobster and truffle, and it kills the taste of both, says Giorgio. A pot-roasted veal tenderloin and some wafer-thin beef carpaccio were simple enough to complement their truffle shroud but my favourites were the pasta and risotto.
So what was the thing about truffles that was news even to Giorgio until recently? He’d tasted the truffles of several regions, including Alba, alongside the ones of his usual supplier from Umbria. He was surprised at just how much the latter tasted better in comparison this year. His supplier attributed it to the earthquake that struck Southern Italy this year. The trees would react to the stress and retain more nutrients into their roots for stability and protection, and the truffles ‘the children of the tree’ (to quote Giorgio) would benefit. Interesting theory this and very plausible given their sensitivity to environmental factors.
Although I’ve met many ‘celebrity chefs’ over the past few years here in Dubai, I don’t actively seek out these experiences. I admire their craft and have tasted some really wonderful dishes but it’s down-to-earth food made with the very best ingredients that would be my desert island dish. I suppose it’s like going to an amazing art exhibition with the most avant-garde works; it stimulates your imagination and thinking while you’re there but you wouldn’t want to live with it in your sitting room.
It’s the absolute focus on the integrity of the ingredients and the way they work within a dish which makes me admire what Giorgio does in particular, and his continual questioning of the provenance of food is where we find common ground. Obviously there’s a place for experimentation and exploration in high-end cuisine but the real luxury is in a plate of food containing two or three elements which absolutely work together. It’s something to celebrate and a real special occasion, and given that ordering a main course (ours were taster dishes) of Parmesan risotto with white truffle will set you back 260 aed it’s not an everyday thing.
More truffle stories
A few earlier encounters with Giorgio during truffle season….
Eating white truffle with Giorgio Locatelli (about ingredients and why ‘more’ is a ‘bordello’),
Truffle, risotto and perfect pasta from Georgio Locatelli (how to make perfect pasta and a risotto recipe)
and On moderation and militants (Giorgio puts the world to rights and we’re ready for revolution!)
You can sample the truffle menu in December while stocks of the precious tubers last at Ronda Locatelli. More info here. I was a guest of Atlantis The Palm.