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Digging for diamonds

Daily Staff Report

Chef Rahm Fama hits pay dirt with one-pound truffleBy Wren WertinDaily Staff WriterRahm Fama spent a good portion of December harassing Jacob Harding. Harding, a salesman for Mikuni Wild Harvest, is the truffle pipeline for more than one restaurant in the valley. Knowing this, Fama called Harding more often than was strictly polite. The chef had every intention of offering white truffles, those musky and delicious fungi that come around once a year, to his diners at both Cucina Rustica and The Wildflower.Alba, Italy’s truffle season was cut short this year due to excessive rain. Of the 60 kilos expected to come to the U.S., only 4 actually made it. Fama was starting to lose hope since it was the tail-end of the season. But on Dec. 22 he struck gold. Instead of calling Harding, Harding called him. And he had very, very good news.”Jacob had just gotten word about a one-pound truffle,” said Fama. “I was the first person he offered it to.”For a mere $6,500, Fama bought it. The wrinkled, potato-sized orb resembles a brain more than a gourmet delicacy. The smell is almost overwhelming. “At the end of truffle season, there were two one-pounders,” Fama said. “I got one, and Daniel Boulud got the other.”Celebrity chef Daniel Boulud has a veritable quiver of restaurants: DANIEL, Bar Boulud, Cafe Boulud, DB Bistro and Daniel Boulud Brasserie. He also happens to be a culinary mentor for Fama, who worked with him in New York City. DANIEL executive chef Jean François Bruel actually procured three large truffles over the course of the season. “I was very happy to find them,” Bruel said. “It’s very difficult to do so.”The first one, almost a pound and a half, was the best.”It was a beautiful shape, very white and clean,” he said. “There were no bruises, and the smell was good.”In addition to looking and smelling good, truffles should be heavy for their size. Lighter truffles have already begun to lose their inner moisture, which impacts both the flavor and the scent. The size doesn’t impact the flavor one way or the other.”It’s just like a potato,” Bruel explained. “You can have a large one that’s rotten in the center, or you can have a small one that’s rotten in the center. The size doesn’t matter.”Chef Fama is saving his truffle for New Year’s Eve at Cucina Rustica. He intends to shave it table-side over tagliatelle pasta, a classic Italian dish. In fact, it’s quite a mystery what the truffle will look like on the inside. There will certainly be a bit of drama as the shavings reveal the fungi’s inner core. It’s acquired almost mythic qualities. “It doesn’t just give you culinary opportunities,” he said. “You should see my staff. They’re running around with their heads up, proud about the truffle. It’s a nugget of inspiration – that’s what it is.”In the way of fairy tales, Fama received another boon. Through a different purveyor, he was able to procure another half pound of Alba whites, albeit smaller nuggets this time. Thus, dinner at adjacent The Wildflower will have a truffle course as well. Though he’s Sicilian on his father’s side, Fama wasn’t raised eating Italian cuisine. He describes his mother as “the worst cook on earth.” He grew up in New Mexico, eating peasant food, cheap and colorless with a hefty zing from chilies. “When I fist saw an asparagus I almost died,” he said. “I thought it was a cactus – I didn’t know you could eat it. After that I discovered artichokes, and then I knew I had to get into cooking.”His culinary education took him to Italy, where he learned how to make gnocchi in the kitchen of a 93-year-old grandma. His teacher had some romantic things to say about truffles.”The smell of a truffle is really the smell of a tree growing,” Fama quoted her. “As the truffle grows in the soil between the roots of a tree, it leeches out the vitamins and minerals. That’s where the smell comes from. There’s no scientific basis for this idea, but it goes to show how spiritual and special truffles are in Italy.”And they’re special in the U.S., too. New Year’s Eve is a fitting evening to break out the stash. Steven Topple at Beano’s Cabin and David Walford at Splendido at the Chateau both have New Year’s Eve menus that include the celebratory fungus. Kyle Cowan at Up the Creek has been having a heyday with his truffle menu, available both a la carte and in its entirety. He intends to send out 2007 with a bang, shaving Alba whites over pan-seared Nantucket Bay scallops with Meyer lemon cream and wilted spinach.As for Fama, he’s on pins and needles to see what his truffle course will look like when the shavings begin to fall. Clearly, it’s not just his staff that’s affected by the $6,500 orb.”I have three kids,” Fama said. “I adore them. But I adore this truffle just as much.”


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