What's so good about truffles?
It's truffle season. We visit The Dorchester hotel to find out what all the fuss is about. By Bernadette Fallon
Want to eat food in season and give yourself a treat? Then there's one thing you should be eating right now. Black Truffles - fresh from the earth, sniffed into existence by a pig or dog. Preferably a French pig or dog. Because the best Black Truffles in the world come from France. A Frenchman told me. His name is Jèrôme Galis, and he is the third generation of truffle farmers in his family. He's also the truffle supplier to Alain Ducasse at London's Dorchester.
So what's a truffle?
Truffles are similar in appearance to mushrooms and mainly grow underground in tree roots. The most prized specimen is the Black Truffle, which comes into season from December to March and grows exclusively with the oak tree. Truffles grow to varying sizes and depend for their growth on two things - a good supply of water and a fruitful relationship with their host tree. The water supply can be controlled, but the symbiotic relationship with the oak? ‘Well, that's a mystery,' smiles Jerome.
Black Truffles are mainly native to Europe; France is the biggest supplier and accounts for almost half of all the truffles produced, followed by Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe. A Black Truffle can sell for between 200 and 600 euros per kilo (now the equivalent in pounds, yikes!). Truffles are also found in the UK, but these are lesser-prized Summer Truffles; you can hunt for them from July to November.
What does it taste like?
From being a truffle virgin, this week I ate my way through five truffle courses at a special lunch to showcase The Dorchester's new menu. Before lunch, truffles of all sizes (and nationalities) were passed around the table so we could sniff and poke at them. The largest - a whopping 7 kg - was amazingly pungent; rich and dark with a strong mushroom aroma. Some have come from as far as China (where they are also used as an anti-cancer drug). But it's thumbs down for the Chinese truffle. ‘Mushroom with a hint of diesel,' sniffs my dinner companion.
First impressions of the famous Black Truffle?
It tastes earthy. So what's all the fuss about I wondered. ‘Bit like Marmite,' confided the food expert sitting beside me. ‘You either love it or hate it.'
But a strange thing happens as the lunch progresses. From the chilled Scottish langoustine with potato gnocchi and black truffle right up to the lush truffle-infused Brie and everything in-between - foie gras (with truffle), sea bass (with truffle) and veal (with roasted truffle) - my appreciation slowly grows. The richness of the taste gently woos my taste buds as the subtle intricacies of the flavours play with my palette. Not just ‘earthy', it becomes the entire flavour of ‘woodland', the dark forest and the pungent soil, the taste of something rich and satisfying.
Where to eat truffles
To celebrate ‘truffle season' The Dorchester has just launched a special Black Truffle menu, offering a selection of the dishes detailed above. Dinner a la carte starts at £55 for two courses, with a £15 truffle supplement. Want to treat yourself and five of your closest friends? Indulge in the exclusive Black Truffle menu, served to guests exclusively at the magical Table Lumière, semi-screened from the main dining room by a curtain of 4500 shimmering optics.
How to find truffles
Traditionally sows have been used to hunt out truffles as they search instinctively for the rich musky smell, caused by androstenol, a sex pheromone also found in boar saliva. This pheromone also accounts for the truffle's reputation as an aphrodisiac.
Jerome uses dogs and hunts with two or three at a time. He laughingly explains that pigs are not as easy to move around the vast space he covers when hunting - his truffle farm covers 20 hectares - and also his children don't like to play with pigs once the work is done. (Plus there is the slight problem that pigs like to eat their discoveries ...)
Cooking with truffles
Truffle oil is a popular substitute for the real thing, offering the flavour at a fraction of the cost, but - as you can imagine - Jerome is rather disparaging of this shortcut, pointing out that the oil only has a tiny percentage of real truffle in its makeup and, in some cases, none at all. However, if you're willing to brave the wrath of the Frenchman, see our delicious recipes for White Bean Truffle soup and Linguine with Mushrooms and Truffle Oil.
Much better, he advises, to cook with the real thing. And, even with truffles, there are cost-cutting methods to employ. If you prepare a truffle dish 24 hours in advance, for example, you will only need to use 30g of truffle per person; cook it fresh on the day and you will need three times that much to achieve the same rich flavour.
If you're cooking poultry, he advises preparing the bird anything up to four days in advance - insert truffle shavings under the skin and leave in the fridge for the rich flavour to penetrate through. Or for a simple recipe using truffle butter, see our Truffle Buttered Turkey dish.
For reservations at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, phone 020 7629 8866, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.alainducasse-dorchester.com. The Dorchester is located on London's Park Lane.
To find out more about seasonal food, see our month-by-month guide to eating in season.