White Gold: Divine flavor, fragrance make truffles a culinary treasure

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.” — Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

Not much has changed in the world of white truffles since the 19th century, it seems. No one has successfully farmed them, and the ethereal flavor and fragrance still defy description. If you’ve never had a white truffle, here’s a thought from Brett Ottolenghi, owner of Artisanal Foods, which distributes the precious fungi for Urbani Truffles:

“All I can say is it tastes to me like earth, in the best way — if the earth were to produce a fruit that has none of the unpleasantness but all of the appeal of mud, or the forest floor.”

Or, as William Makepeace Thackeray said, also in the 19th century: “Presently, we were aware of an odour gradually coming towards us, something musky, fiery, savoury, mysterious — a hot drowsy smell, that lulls the senses, and yet enflames them — the truffles were coming.”

Actually, the truffles are here. While white truffle season traditionally is autumn, the first ones started coming to market this year in late August. Ottolenghi said the early arrival portends a good season, and the retail price of about $150 an ounce is a little lower than in previous years.

White truffles are so expensive because they’re only found in nature; only in certain areas, principally the Piemonte (site of white-truffle mecca Alba) and Umbria regions of Italy, and Croatia; require great skill to harvest; are very susceptible to disease because they have no skin; and are highly perishable.

Of the estimated 500 species of truffles, only one white species, tuber magnatum, is prized. (The chosen black winter truffle, tuber melanosporum, is more widely available, not as perishable, can be farmed and retails for about a third of its white counterpart.)

Considering the price, and their ethereal nature, truffles usually are the star of the dish.

“Most preparations are simple, so that you can enjoy the truffle itself,” Ottolenghi said. “Whether it’s on pasta or scrambled eggs, those are two of my favorite ways of eating white truffles.”

He said white truffles are served in about two dozen of the most high-end restaurants in town. Three local chefs said that while they’ve seen this year’s crop, they were waiting a bit to serve them.

“It’s a glorious ingredient; I’d rather be patient and make sure that the truffle we’re serving is at its prime,” said Julien Asseo, executive chef of Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace. Asseo uses them in a butternut squash soup with a poached egg.

“We have guests come back just for that,” he said. He’ll also feature them in a risotto and possibly a fresh pasta, and may make a five-course tasting menu around them.

Christophe De Lellis, executive chef of Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand, said he planned to serve them in three principal dishes: potato carpaccio with foie gras terrine, sliced radish and crunchy bread; spaghetti with Parmesan; and suckling pig with bean ragout. His 16-course tasting menu likely will incorporate white truffles in five or six dishes.

And Alan Mardonovich, executive chef of Le Cirque at Bellagio, said he’ll use them in a tasting menu with options of three to eight courses.

“As soon as I experienced white truffles, it was beyond elegant,” he said. “The fragrance, how it perfumes the food. You never actually cook white truffles because it destroys it. It’s so elegant and luxurious.”