Is there a more polarising foodstuff in the world than truffles? Depending on who you talk to, they are either some kind of food lover’s talisman, or a grotesque, pretentious waste of money and effort.
I am afraid I am leaning to the former camp, having I’ve just returned from an assignment for Condé Nast Traveller in Provence.
The staggeringly gorgeous Chateau & Relais Hotel Crillon le Brave, in the village of the same name just south of Mont Ventoux in the Vaucluse, runs truffle-themed weekends in March, October and November, and I caught the last one, at the end of last month.
The weekend included a truffle cooking demo, with the hotel’s chef Philippe Monti - a local boy, born in nearby Bedoin - a truffle-themed dinner prepared by him in the hotel’s vaulted, stone dining room (once a stable); a visitf or a tasting to Chateau Le Nerthe, in Chateau-neuf-du-Pape; and, of course, the truffle hunt itself, which took place in an oak plantation just outside Carpentras.
Farmer Eric and his truffle hound Polka (worth about €5,000 - the dog, not Eric), led us through the oak trees where, even though it was the end of the season, we found five golf ball sized fungi, worth about €80.
Eric told me that he is plagued by truffle poachers, who come, armed, at night and ferret for his precious truffles with torches and dogs underneath tarpaulins.
I learned loads of fascinating stuff about truffles - how they grow, how to cook and preserve them. Here are a few tips should you be lucky enough to have a source either for Black Diamonds (which grow in southern France, Spain and Italy) or white truffles, which grow most famously in Alba, but also in Croatia. Monti said the other types of truffles, some of which can be found in the UK, aren’t really worth bothering with.
● soak them in water, brush off the mud, then freeze them and just shave from frozen.
● Try and buy lots of small truffles, rather than one big one. They are easier to store, and you won’t risk spending all your money on a truffle that might be rotten or unripe (they don’t riped after picking).
● Heat is the enemy of a truffle’s flavour. You should never heat white truffles at all - only use them raw - but you can cook with black truffles. The trick is to use truffles to infuse flavour, either by leaving them in eggs for a day or so, or even in a jar of whole eggs for 4-5 days. Or you can leave them in mash potato over a bain marie for an hour or so, or warm them gently in butter.
The piece will run later this year in Condé Nast Traveller.