Truffles in Provence: Partake (Part 2)
“The truffle must always be the queen of the night,” Johann caught himself as he poured champagne, “well, unless your wife is there.” He’s not suggesting that truffles must always be accompanied by a glass of bubbly—what a life that would be—but emphasizing that truffles pair best with subtlety. “After a glass of wine with lots of tannins or citrus, you’re not tasting the truffle anymore. Wine will always be there, but a fresh, in-season truffle? That’s rare.”
Johann’s arm tensed as he sliced the solid-as-a-rock, deeply aromatic black summer truffle, revealing the third mark of a great find: veins. Each push against the mandolin, loud like sandpaper on raw wood, unveiled a distinct map of wide rivers, narrow creeks, and Lilliputian streams, all articulated in white over tawny land. No veins? Weak aroma? Squishy? Don’t waste your money. Another deal breaker? Heat.
“The first time I ever had truffle was at my best friend’s house,” Johann divulged as he assembled our tasting. “His mom made lobster bisque and kept asking if I could taste the secret ingredient. It was truffle. I didn’t taste anything because you never, ever cook a truffle.” Truffles begin to dehydrate immediately after they’re plucked from the ground. As moisture goes, so goes flavor and aroma, meaning the moment someone introduces heat to a truffle is the moment you can be sure they don’t know what they’re doing.
“If you can butter bread, you can be a truffle chef. All you need is fat, salt, and fresh truffle.”
We shared three savory presentations: bread, salted butter, truffle; bread, soft salted cow’s cheese, truffle; and bread, venison pate, truffle, truffle oil. “The flavor of the truffle changes depending on what’s around it,” Johann drove the conversation while I sought out the differences. Paired with butter, umami was right up front. Flavors of mushroom and hazelnut were both made more mushroomy and more hazelnutty by the salt, and the butter disappeared into the unexpectedly creamy texture of the truffle itself. With cheese, the truffle somehow edged into sweetness. With venison, it mellowed into an unquestionable savory. Each bite was a surprise, the biggest of which? The truffle oil tasted great.
“Johann,” I spoke earnestly, “I have very strong opinions about truffle oil.”
He laughed, “You should.”
“I hate it, I hate it. I’ve gone on rants about it. I’ve had so many dishes ruined by it. But… I like this truffle oil. A lot. Why?”
Turns out, most truffle oils don’t have any truffle in them. They have “natural aroma” or “flavoring” or “essence.” They might even have “dried truffle,” which’ll impart about as much flavor as a rock. They’re an affordable way for chefs to boost the flavor of a truffle past its prime. Johann‘s truffle oil is infused with real truffles for 10 days. The ingredient list simply reads: olive oil infused with real truffles. It’s not overwhelming, it’s not chemically, it’s just bold-tasting, earthy, and damn good. The lesson here? Read the ingredients, and pass if it doesn't say "truffle."*
The artisan salt market is also ripe for extortion. The key here is to know what you’re paying for, and the trick lies in Latin. Salt containing Tuber aestivum has been infused with black summer truffle. It’ll be tasty, but less intense than salt infused its black winter counterpart, Tuber melanosporum. Both will taste of truffle for 9 months, but summer truffle salt should never cost as much or more than winter truffle salt.
Now fully equipped to make educated truffle decisions, I eagerly awaited the final course: black winter truffle ice cream with black winter truffle honey.
“So we have fat, we have truffle, is there any salt?” Johann shook his head, but happily handed me the salt grinder so I could experiment. Before setting the petite dessert down, he told a cautionary tale of those who came before liking the dessert a little too much. “Just don’t make any weird noises.”
I rolled my eyes, “I won’t.”
Oh, the naivety. The flavor was punch-you-in-the-gut, shake-you-by-the-shoulders big. Bold and shocking, like a kiss you hoped for but never expected. The kind of food that’s so good it makes you feel a little stupid. With each bite, I found myself more and more willing to forego my American citizenship in exchange for humble servitude to the queen of the night, more and more aware of just how hard I was working to keep my weird noises at bay.
Alexandre Dumas wrote, "The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord." Even seasoned truffle farmers like Johann freely admit to the myriad unknowns surrounding the ugly, smelly, oddly sensual, genuinely treasured truffle. But we know exactly how to eat it: perfectly ripe with nothing but fat, salt, and enough self-control to keep your noises appropriate at the dinner table.
Check out Truffles in Provence: Harvest (Part 1) for the full story.
*Unless you're a fan of the fake stuff. Then by all means, buy what you like. Just don't buy it thinking it's real, and don't spend too much money. And don't get mad at me when I side-eye you.