Truffles: Siren song of seduction
Vail CO, Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Truffles are the culinary equivalent of sex. You love them or you don’t. You smell them or you don’t. You need them or you don’t. Musky, earthy, slightly sinister and consuming, the ugly little fungi clods aren’t child’s play.
There’s a saying in France about truffles: Those who wish to lead virtuous lives had better abstain. They come around once a year, and for four to six weeks they establish a presence, leading chefs and diners down the path of temptation.
“You smell them and you become willing to do whatever you have to do to have them,” said Kyle Cowan, executive chef at Up the Creek. He, like a handful of other local chefs, is hosting a multi-course truffle dinner at the restaurant until his supplies run out. It’s a decadent affair, but the food is regional and authentic, as befits truffles’ culinary history.
Cowan’s opted for Perigord truffles from France and whites from Alba, Italy. Therefore, his menu highlights classic, almost simple, dishes from those areas. “You can’t cut a corner with a truffle,” he said. “We’re going for a clean, beautiful presentation.”
All of his courses are available a la carte and are served with truffles freshly shaved table-side. Thus a classic French omelet includes Perigord truffles, while a roasted pumpkin bisque is topped with Alba whites.
Truffles are fungi that grow underground, usually near the roots of oak, beech, hazel and chestnut trees. Truffle grounds can be pinpointed by the barren appearance of the ground surrounding the trees. Lying in the loamy soil, truffles suck up the life of such wispy vegetation as grass and weeds. Still, it’s not enough to know a general area. If a truffle wrangler just begins digging, it’s more than likely the spade will ruin the prize.
Pigs have aided truffle hunters for centuries, since the truffle’s scent mimics a male pig sex organ. More recently, dogs have become guides. “Pigs are better at finding them, but they want to eat them,” said Cowan. “Dogs aren’t interested in eating them.”
Once found by the animals, the trufficulteur gently scrapes away the soil without touching the truffle. Manhandling the fungus causes it to rot. If the truffle isn’t ripe yet, it’s gently reburied and left for a later date.
“Truffles are all about the aroma,” said La Tour executive chef Bill Messick. “And the fact that they’re expensive and rare. They’re special.”
He’s not lying. Truffles are over-the-top expensive. Every year there are a couple of respected truffle festivals in France and Italy. There are such official designations as Nicest Truffle and Largest Truffle. An international auction held simultaneously in Macau, London and Florence on Dec. 5 drew financial tycoons from around the world. The largest, a 3.3-pounder, eventually sold for $330,000. As French writer Colette wrote in Passages et Portraits, “If you love her, pay her ransom regally, or leave her alone.”
Peter Stadler, owner of Up the Creek and the man who pays the bills, teases Cowan about the truffles. “He’s named each one of them,” he said, deadpan.
Looking at the pile of almost $6,000 worth of fungi, it’s easy to imagine such a custom. “It’s a lot to have invested in four square inches of real estate,” Cowan agreed.
The U.S. was slated to receive 60 kilos of truffles from Alba, Italy this year, but the season was cut short by 56 kilos. Paul Kellum, executive chef of Blue Moon Restaurant at Eagle’s Nest, was lucky enough to get in on the precious 4 kilos. “Basically, my name went in a hat,” he said. “My supplier called and said I could have them but I had to pay a thousand more a pound. I said we’d do it.”
He intends to cook with truffle “scraps,” while topping each course with fresh shavings from the prime specimans. Rabbit fricasse, bone-in filet of beef and ravioli will all be permeated with truffle flavor.
There are dozens of varieties of truffles, but only the black and white truffles of the genus Tuber (Latin for lump, of all things) inspire romantics, lovers and thieves. The blacks, called the “black diamond of the kitchen” by famed epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, primarily come from France though they’re also found in Italy and Spain. “The blacks are more utilitarian and cheaper. They also have a longer shelf life,” Cowan said.
The pungent whites, which are Piedmont, Italy’s most famous export, should be used as garnish. Traditionally, they’re shaved on food table-side.
Cowan has both blacks and whites; Kellum and Messick have opted for whites only. Chinese truffles, summer truffles and desert truffles are all on the market, too, but don’t have the flavor or cache to compete with the real deal. Oregon truffleculture is getting there, but learning exactly when to harvest them is key.
Despite the rarity of truffles, many local chefs would rather do without than settle for lesser quality. Messick opened his box of treasure and was dismayed at what he found. “You can tell by the smell immediately,” he said. “These weren’t right.” He demanded a replacement.
“The truffle is all about the aroma,” said chef-owner David Walford of Splendido at the Chateau. “If that’s missing or not right then you just have black spots or black or white shavings.” He orders truffles for his New Year’s Eve dinner, but doesn’t keep them in stock.
Truffles aren’t a new phenomenon. They’ve been written about since the fourth century. Their origin was hotly contested. Some thought they were the result of lightning, while others were certain they were created by thunder. Cicero called them children of the earth, and priests deemed them satanic. They are universally ” if not scientifically ” deemed aphrodisiacs. There’s nothing subtle about them.
“They’re like drugs ” you can’t smuggle them across the border without smelling them,” Cowan said.
They’re also demanding. Above and beyond the price tag, they require proper care. No lying around in the fridge for these beauties.
“Much like babies we have to change their paper twice a day,” Cowan explained, referring to the paper towel encasing each truffle. “We also have to brush them twice a day. Moisture is the enemy.”
But the reward is rich. And Cowan isn’t bashful about the truffles’ power. “If you bring your girl in and buy her a six-course truffle menu, you’re probably going to get lucky … somehow,” he said.