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Heaven from earth

With black truffles from a great source, more is more. Shower them on the simplest dishes for the richest effect.

February 22, 2006|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

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.

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