Poetry on Truffles!
No, I haven’t been brought up with the knowledge of these ‘fruiting body of a subterranean Ascomycete fungus’ that creates such an exciting topic of conversation amongst my foodie friends. It was not until I read a post written by Francine (aka Life in the Food Lane) that I became completely mersmerised by truffles. In her post, The Truffle Hunter and his Dog, she writes about her experience of hunting for truffles in the woods of Alba, in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. I learn about truffle dogs and how these specially trained dogs hunt down quality truffles and rejects the inferior ones. She writes… Truffle dogs are trained from 3 months old. They get started on little bits of truffle to learn the taste and smell. Next, they practice finding little truffles buried in the garden, until they’re ready for the real hunt... Many attempts have been made to describe the scent of truffle. It is an enigmatic and complex aroma, with “notes of wet earth, hay, fermented honey, funghi, garlic, spices, and even ammonia”, as described by those that live and breathe the Alba White Truffle. Hovering so close to the forest floor, with its autumn smells of dried berries, crushed acorn, tree bark, and fallen leaves, and wet dog stirring up dark chalky clay enriched with an incredible fungal aroma”. Below is a picture of Francine with black truffle found in her truffle hunt (image courtesy – Francine). Researching more on truffles, I also learn about the best truffle grounds – Alba, Umbria and other Northern parts of Italy where there exists heritage estates that have been cultivating truffles for centuries. In fact, the rarest and the most expensive white truffles come from Italy’s Alba region. I start to believe that a truffle lover’s writing on truffles is equivalent to a poet’s rendition of a romantic poetry. The website of San Pietro a Pettine, one such heritage estate, reads… it’s hard to explain how deep and symbiotic is the relation between us and our truffles. It’s for them that the seasons alternate, that we learn how to interpret sun and rain. It is of them that we discuss, even excitedly, with friends. I learn how truffles, once in abundance and widely used, have become one of the most rare and exclusive natural foods in the world. And this year due to a bumper crop and bad weather in northern Italy, the prices of truffles have come down by half. Truffles, I am told, can be very delicate and both complex in terms of understanding. For those who aren’t conversant with truffles, Sarah (aka The Hedonista) gives a round down on the different types of truffles and what events you can look out for in Dubai. Over the last two years, I have acquired a taste for truffles and wait in anticipation for the truffle season to set in and the different truffle menus that hit the town. Not that we have to wait for the year around for seasonal truffles to arrive – we do have our very own resident Truffle Man (more on him later).
My Mum still thinks that I don’t cook quite up to her standard!
Waking up one fine morning in this truffle season, I go for an exclusive lunch with Giorgio Locatelli, over a Truffle menu on the terrace of Ronda Locatelli, his restaurant in Atlantis The Palm. Bereft of his signature locks, this was a new Locatelli. However, the passion that flared when he talked about Italian cuisine, truffles and his menu at Ronda was the same as ever. His understanding of the finest nuances in Italian cuisine is unparalleled. Quite naturally so… growing up near Lake Maggiore, Italy, in a village called Corgeno, his family ran a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s not surprising that passion for food runs in Locatelli’s veins. I ask him what his parents think of his cooking now. ‘My dad thinks I can cook. But my Mum still thinks that I don’t cook quite up to her standard!’ Talking about truffles, he explains why truffles are so delicate and truffle hunters are so . The truffle dogs are trained to sniff out truffles but when the truffles are perfectly ripe – the tail stands up and their paws dig into the ground with a lot more ferocity and excitement. It is now up to the truffle hunter to take the decision whether he they should leave a not-so-truffle behind at the risk of losing it to another truffle hunter. Because of this scarcity and the specific knowledge in only a few people in the region, truffles are expensive and considered such a haute gourmet food item. According to this GN article, the Italian market price is now about €220 (Dh1006) per 100g, compared with €350 last year and €500 in 2012, according to data from the National Centre for the Study of Truffles cited in a Bloomberg report. But that still translates to Dhs 10,000 per kg! When asked whether the abundance in crop would actually make truffles a *mass product*, Locatelli reassures me that it will never be so.
My Locatelli experience in the past
Well, I love everything Italian – Italian men (ever since Michelangelo sculpted David) and Italian Mamas, their accentuated English, the animated hand movements, their love for cooking and feeding (as I got to know on our Sicilian sojourn). And Locatelli is all that and more. He is passion translated into cooking. I have attended a session in the past where he demonstrated the making of pasta (above). He explained all the minor nuances of Italian cooking, the two different types of Italian olives and the importance of a good Olive Oil. As you can see from the pictures, he was all animated – he put his sunglasses on as the sun hits his eyes, rummaged through his unruly hair (sorry, I couldn’t get over the fact that you have chopped off your hair!) and signs off a copy of his cookbook for me in such a stylised manner. He emphasised on making pastas at home than choosing a variety from supermarkets, also adding that making pasta at home is much easier than what the supermarkets would make us believe. Ronda Locatelli, his restaurant in the Atlantis, The Palm, reflects the same joie de vivre of the consultant Chef. Next on my wish list – visiting Locanda Locatelli, his restaurant in London. The restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star in 2003, which has been retained in 2004, 2005,2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011! It is Locatelli who has instilled the love for Italian cuisine in me (yes, making this hard core Bengali blogger attend Risotto Masterclasses too!)
Coming back to the White Truffle Menu and the White truffles
Ronda’s Chef Alessandro in collaboration with Giorgio Locatelli, have tailored a special menu around il Tartufo Bianco, or the White Truffle, running all month long (Carpaccio with shaved white truffle, homemade tagliolini with shaved white truffle, veal cutlet and potato puree with shaved white truffle, the white truffle menu offers us more – and every dish has white truffles shaved on it. Locatelli uses the Umbrian white truffle from San Pietro a Pettine. He tells us how fresh truffles cannot be kept for more than a week and white truffles are never cooked as it kills the flavour of the truffles. So a lot of the truffle butters and truffle oils that are available in supermarkets can be synthetic. The white truffles are used best used as shavings on risottos and pastas. Although the white truffles cannot be kept for more than we week, if it is infused with honey, they can last longer… thus inspiring him to create the Honey Truffle Ice cream (further below) in the dessert section of Ronda’s White truffle Menu. In the usual Locatelli style, our lunch menu was elaborate, a sheer sensory delight in its use of ingredients and fresh produce. Truffles, non-truffles, our choice was aplenty. The gallery follows…
The non-truffle delights at The Ronda Terrace that afternoon…
I still can remember Giorgio Locatelli’s face as he shared his truffle stories and his excitement about the white truffle season. But, guess what? Dubai being Dubai… we don’t really have to wait for any truffle season to appear or any abundance in crop to bring down the prices of truffles. Food importer Massimo Vidoni, or the Truffle Man as he is known as, brings in truffles into the Middle East, all the year around. Specializing in sourcing the best fresh truffles, frozen, canned or in jars… he also brings in truffles that this golden city of Dubai would be ecstatic to have… the *ultimate* one … the white truffle honey with 23KT Gold or the *sublime* one… Italian Acacia honey with 23 kt Gold… all the way from Italy!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
PS: Another interesting Truffle invite that I couldn’t attend but seems very interesting… The White Gold menu at Umai in The Oberoi. Available until November 29. The menu is infused with the taste and aroma of white truffles from the Urbani region of Alba, combined with Chef Yasunori’s special Asian twist.
Disclaimer: Ronda Locatelli had been part of the Italian Cuisine World Summit 2014 that was hosted in Dubai. Please note that this post is not a sponsored post and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. You can catch my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.