ALL this talk of tightening belts is enough to make one want to do precisely the opposite. Thankfully, when it comes to big, indulgent blowouts of the kind where the only important cut is that of the expensive meat on your plate, the most indulgent ingredient of them all is in season.
The “Alba Madonna” – Italy’s white truffle – is like some sort of fairytale nectar, found growing in one blessed region – around the Piedmont town of Alba – and gestating the kinds of tastes and aromas that would make even the most hardened anti-gourmand swoon.
“It’s really quite erotic,” says The Connaught hotel’s two Michelin-starred French chef, Helene Darroze, in an accent that’s more Gallic than a croissant with café au lait. We’re standing in the hotel’s snug basement kitchen where Darroze is rustling up a white truffle risotto.
STUFF OF DREAMS
Upstairs, in The Connaught’s sumptuous restaurant, Darroze’s six-course truffle menu is being served – and it’s a thing of wonder, believe you me. A huge roasted scallop basking in a parmesan foam and topped with white truffle shavings is sex on a plate, while the dessert – sponge pudding in a glass with mascarpone cream, almond foam and slices of truffle – is the stuff of the most glorious dreams.
Truffle, of course, is a fungus, an underground mushroom that’s both fragile and very, very pricey. It doesn’t travel well and even refrigerated it doesn’t last long – a week if you’re lucky. “The price varies every day according to what’s being found, since it’s brought over here and delivered immediately,” says Claire Wells of London Fine Foods, which sells white truffles online on a next-day basis. “It’s a living funghi, so it’s vital it’s kept in a cool environment and eaten as soon as possible.”
Chefs worship it, but it’s suitable for earthy, uncomplicated dishes too, which is why Darroze is showing me how to use it for a humble risotto. Not that hers is exactly humble – duck fat is used instead of olive oil, the rice is the finest Arborio around, and huge dollops of whipped cream are spooned in for extra creaminess. Stirring in stock, Darroze points out the most important aspect of cooking with white truffle – that you shouldn’t actually cook with it. “Only add it in shavings at the end, never cook it – it’s too delicate and the taste will be broken,” she says.
Defining the tantalising qualities of the truffle isn’t easy: a touch of caramel there, a hint of hazelnut there, a floral zing matched with an earthy nuttiness, sparkling lightness offset by bold, brassy punch. It’s elusive, which means deciding what to serve it with isn’t straightforward.
“For me there are only two meats which go with white truffle: chicken and veal,” says Darroze. “Sometimes female pheasant is delicate enough too, but not male.”
However, white fish – and particularly scallops – are perfect, as is parmesan. Given parmesan has such a strong taste, isn’t that surprising? “Perhaps, but it compliments it very well and of course it’s very Italian,” says the chef, hurling great clumps of the grated cheese into the risotto. “A salad of rocket leaves with parmesan and truffle shavings is so simple, but very good.”
Darroze ladles the risotto into ramekins, grabs a large truffle an assistant has been scrubbing clean with a brush, and grates off shavings over the risotto, squeaking with pleasure as she notices the deep pink hue tingeing the dappled white of the truffle’s interior.
“That means it probably grew near poplar trees instead of oak – that’s the very best kind of white truffle,” she says. Well, one wouldn’t expect anything less.
The Truffle Menu at Helene Darroze at The Connaught is £95 per person with a £36 supplement for white truffle. www.the-connaught.co.uk
WHITE TRUFFLES | WHERE ELSE TO EAT THEM
AT Babbo, the smart Italian restaurant on Albemarle street , chef Douglas Santi is offering dishes including homemade tagliolini with quail egg cream and white truffles and Guinea fowl with chestnut and white truffles.
Everyone's favourite Italian maestro Giorgio Locatelli is serving a dedicated truffle menu at Locanda Locatelli , as is Marco Torri at Ristorante Semplice – we like the sound of the cheese fondue with white truffle –?while both The Square and The Greenhouse have white truffle specials on. At the latter, the Poularde de Bresse (chicken from Bresse in France) served in two services (breast first, then leg) with quenelle Lyonnaise, lobster bisque & shavings of white truffles sounds spectacular.