From the kitchen, I heard the muffled whack of someone beating eggs and the softer thump of a knife chopping something on the cutting board. Sit down, my host urged, and he poured a glass of golden Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc. It smelled, mysteriously, of white peaches and blossoms.
The beautiful, dark-haired cook set a huge flat omelet in front of us. Startlingly deep yellow, and studded with big chunks of black truffle, it had a powerful aroma of earth and funk. I took a bite and, it’s crazy, I know, began to hum.
Before that lunch at Francois and Annick Perrin’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape estate, Chateau de Beaucastel, I’d mostly encountered black truffles as tiny specks buried in a sauce, or as crisp, almost woody slices of something that had so little flavor, I had to take it on faith that this was, indeed, the fabled Tuber melanosporum, the prized fungus sniffed out by trained, truffle-hunting pigs in France, traditionally in the Southwest.
The ones I had in that omelet came from Richerenches in Provence, so they were, in effect, very local. In fact, these days, black truffles are much more abundant there than in Perigord. All the better, because the world’s appetite for truffles has only increased, and prices keep going up. And up.
Part of the lexicon of French haute cuisine, black truffles are expensive, but not as expensive as the white truffle from Italy’s Piedmont.
White truffles are more showy, giving away everything in their extravagant perfume. Maybe that’s why so many chefs feel compelled to amp up the flavor with a few drops of truffle oil. Not so the black truffle, which seems to reveal its secrets only when folded into eggs, or mayonnaise, or butter. It loves warmth and it loves fat. But precisely because it’s so expensive, chefs tend to use it in minute quantities in complicated dishes where its presence is difficult to detect except in menu descriptions.
Every year when black truffle season rolls around in late November, I long for Annick Perrin’s truffle omelet. Sometimes I get my fix at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where chef Jean-Pierre Moulle serves soft scrambled eggs with truffles at the cafe. Tender as clouds and suffused with the taste of truffes noires, they come with rafts of grilled bread. With a bottle of Condrieu, it makes the most wonderful winter lunch.
I didn’t make it up there this year, so when I heard that the same supplier who provides truffles to Spago in Beverly Hills and other top restaurants in this country would also sell to the public, I got together some friends and ordered some from Plantin America Inc.
A family business
Christopher Poron runs the business from the East Coast, while his father Herve takes care of the French side of things. With truffles, freshness is of the essence, so we wanted to plan our dinner party for the night or the night after we’d get the truffles. We found out that the shipments usually arrive in New York from France on a Monday and Poron can ship out by Fed Ex overnight the next day.
It’s been a difficult season this year, he said, with so much ground frozen, and so the quantity is less than usual. Still, he expects the season to last until mid-March, which gives us three more weeks to indulge. It’s very tempting, because the more you order, the lower the price (which includes shipping). For example, 2 ounces, which is basically two 1-ounce truffles, is $140. But if you order 6 or more ounces, the price can go as low as $50 an ounce, which makes getting together with friends to place an order a fine idea.
At the farmers market that Sunday, I bought some free-range eggs and the minute the truffles arrived, I put them in a jar with the eggs. That way the eggs take in some of the truffle aromas and flavor. When you make scrambled eggs with those truffle-infused eggs, the taste is explosive; intensified, of course, when you add in more truffle, julienned.
These truffles were beautiful, knobbly and coal black, a little smaller than golf balls, with all of their perfume intact. Every day that passes, though, they lose weight, flavor and aroma. Use them soon, or lose them.
I had no trouble at all with that. One truffle went into the scrambled eggs, which we served, a la Chez Panisse, with rafts of country white from La Brea Bakery, cut inch-thick and lightly toasted, then rubbed with garlic and drizzled with a little olive oil. Alongside the saffron-colored eggs we served a pretty little salad of frisee dressed in red wine vinegar and olive oil.
I took a bite of the eggs. I started to hum. And every subsequent bite elicited the same contented purring. In a restaurant, it would have cost four of us a fortune to indulge in anything laced with this amount of truffle. But we’d used just one of our truffles, which weighed in at a little more than an ounce. Divide the cost by four, and this sublime truffle hit seems almost reasonable.
Just for the record, though, when French three-star chef Paul Bocuse makes his scrambled eggs with truffle, he uses an astonishing 7 ounces of truffle for eight eggs, or just about one of the truffles we received for each egg! No butter for the maestro either, as he tells it in his 1992 cookbook, “Regional French Cooking” -- just a mere dollop of creme fraiche. And once he whisks the eggs with the truffles, he leaves the bowl to sit for an hour to further infuse the eggs with the taste of truffles before he cooks them.
In fact, it’s the simple dishes, like these eggs, that show truffles to their best advantage.
So what to do with a second truffle? Roast a chicken with some truffle slices tucked under the skin. We shaved six fine slices and slid them in under the breast. And as the chicken turned a dark gold in the oven, you could see the slices through the transparent skin, promising something delicious.
In fact, the truffles lose much of their taste in the cooking. Most of the flavor comes from truffle butter whisked into the juices just before serving.
Truffle butter? If I had just one truffle, I might be tempted to turn it all into truffle butter. Just mince up the truffle trimmings and fold them into softened unsalted to lightly salted butter, the best you can find. We used Double Devon Cream butter from Trader Joe’s. Roll it up into a log and wrap in plastic film. It can then be frozen without losing any of the flavor. The proportion is about one part truffles to two parts butter.
I used some a couple of days later to fold into a baked potato -- fantastic! You can toss fresh egg noodles or tagliarini in some of the truffle butter too. The simpler the better.
You can also use the minced truffle shavings to fold into a mayonnaise for celeri remoulade, an idea I got from one of Patricia Wells’ cookbooks. I had a little of the remoulade left over the next day and found the truffle flavor had deepened overnight, so this is something that benefits from being made ahead.
Vinaigrette, too, is a good use -- it seems to capture the truffle’s flavor in the oil. Make a vinaigrette with olive oil and wine vinegar that’s not too sharp, stir in a tablespoon of minced truffle and marinate halved, steamed fingerlings for a surprising potato salad. Sprinkle on more minced truffle, and chives, before serving.
Another truffle went into a recipe from three-star chef Guy Savoy for lentils with black truffles. Somehow, I knew the taste of those tiny green lentils against the full-blown earthiness of the truffles had to be interesting, and it was.
It proved my point: You don’t have to be a skilled chef to do something wonderful with this ingredient.
Leave the foie gras and intricate sauces to the restaurant chefs. You’ll get a bigger hit if you invest in them yourself and show them off in simple dishes where the truffles and not a million other ingredients shine.
Rhone or Rhone-style wines seem to have a particular affinity for black truffles. Maybe it’s because both are earthy and lavishly perfumed. Somehow when a Syrah or a Roussanne or a Viognier crosses paths with that miraculous fungus, they make some kind of magic.
Eggs are notoriously difficult with wine. Add a truffle, and it seems to change the balance.
The fleshy richness of a Condrieu or Beaucastel’s glorious old vines Roussanne, or barring that rare bottle, their white Chateauneuf-du-Pape sidles right up to the egg and the truffle, playing the eggs’ bland goodness against the dusky earthiness of the truffle. Viognier, with its scent of violets, is another great match. Guigal Condrieu is a great example; even better is the producer’s stunning single vineyard Condrieu called La Doriane.
Roasted chicken with truffles wants a red, which could be a Hermitage from Chaves or a Chateauneuf from any of the great producers, such as Domaine du Pegau, but they’re not inexpensive. Domaine Grand Veneur, however, is a good, moderately priced Chateauneuf-duPape. A Gigondas or a Crozes-Hermitage would also do nicely.
For the lentil and truffle dish, I chose a Mourvedre from southern France, specifically Domaine Tempier’s Bandol rouge, for its bright fruit and darker tones. Domaine de Puech Chaud Coteaux du Languedoc, a Syrah from Cote Rotie producer Rene Rostaing, drinks equally well with this rustic yet sophisticated dish, and may be more of a bargain.
Now that I’ve done it, I’m thinking of making this an annual event. I’ll just have to decide which of my friends make next year’s truffle list.