I am a truffle virgin.
The closest I’ve got to cooking with truffles was a recipe for Cauliflower Soup by John Burton-Race which demanded – or rather, insisted – on a swirl of truffle oil in the soup just before serving. He swore this made all the difference, so I splashed out on a very expensive small bottle of truffle oil. He was right. That ribbon of golden perfumed oil whisked through the creamy cauliflower soup worked magic. My guests asked me what had I done to make the soup taste so delicious?
But experimenting with truffle oil was as far as I ever got back in the UK – truffles aren’t exactly two a penny on the Welsh Borders. So last week, when I came across some truffle sellers in Albi Market promoting a Fete des Truffes at the nearby village of Villeneuve-sur-Vere the following Sunday, I knew I had to go.
The French can be wonderfully pragmatic about their food festivals – forget charming village halls or medieval market squares – the Fete des Truffes took place in a huge agricultural barn, all corrugated iron and concrete, with benches set out in the middle for the festive ‘repas au truffes’.
I turned up early, expecting to be amongst the first arrivals, but cars were parked everywhere. There were probably close to six hundred people already there and more arriving for the promised lunch featuring truffle omelettes. The atmosphere was very convivial – families with children, elderly men in berets, groups of friends – all here to celebrate the truffles. It made me realise that the French truly are obsessed with good food – and with truffles, which hold a fabled place in French cuisine. The French gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, described them as “the diamonds of French cuisine“.
For those of you who want to know what exactly is a truffle, Wikipedia says it’s “the fruiting body of an underground mushroom. Its spores are dispersed by fungivores, animals that eat fungi.” Hunting for truffles is done with either pigs or dogs, who are trained to sniff for the distinctive odour of the underground truffles. Not surprisingly, they are expensive and good truffles can cost thousands, in whatever currency you choose.
Given there was such a large gathering I was surprised there were only ten actual ‘trufficulteurs’ in a small side hall. As I shuffled in with the crowd, I could smell the ‘parfum’ of truffles. They were black truffles (Tuber Melanosporum) and even though there were probably not more than 40 or so truffles on display, the entire hall was scented with their musky perfume.
The most expensive was, of course, the largest – on sale for €92 euros and well beyond my budget. But eventually I came across a small dark truffle at €23 euros which I managed to get my hands on just before someone else did. I then realised I would need a truffle slicer – no good just cutting a truffle with a knife – wafer thin slices are required. So another €13 euros disappeared into someone’s pocket. Everything here is ‘liquide’ (cash in hand) and if you ask for a receipt, eyebrows are raised.
There was also a stand selling saplings of the trees most commonly associated with cultivating truffles. In this part of France, it tends to be oak, and I spotted my good friends Michéle and Cristelle buying a couple of oak trees. They’ll have to be patient – it takes at least five years before a tree infected with the fungi will start producing truffles.
Back in Albi, I realised I had no idea what to do with my truffle, so I decided to do my homework and take my truffle seriously. The recipe that popped up everywhere was Omelette au Truffes – but it’s definitely not your standard ‘let’s cook an omelette’ recipe.
Omelette au Truffes
Serves one person, preparation time – three days and one hour! Obviously multiply by the number of people – but my truffle at 23 gm was large enough to do quite a few omelettes.
1 fresh black truffle
3 large organic eggs
Organic sunflower oil
First take your eggs, place them in a plastic box with a lid in the vegetable compartment of the fridge, along with the truffle, which should be wrapped in kitchen towel (to absorb any moisture). Replace the kitchen towel every day as it absorbs the moisture from the truffle. Leave for three days.
“When I finally took the eggs out of the box, I was amazed. The shells of the eggs were perfumed with the scent of truffle.” FJM
Break the eggs into a large bowl and whisk with a balloon whisk as for an ordinary omelette. Shave paper thin slices of the truffle and put a good quantity into the beaten eggs and leave at room temperature for an hour.
Heat the oil in a frying pan, pour in the eggs and truffle and make your omelette, gathering up the edges from the side of the pan and gently pushing them towards the centre as you tip the liquid mix towards the edge of the pan. You’re aiming for a soft, still slightly runny omelette so don’t overcook it. At the last moment shave some more truffle into the omelette, roll it up and serve it. I ate it with some crusty, buttered baguette and nothing else.
The taste of the omelette was the kind that makes you close your eyes and run your tongue round your mouth to get every last vestige of taste in contact with your taste buds. I don’t know about you, but when I eat things I like, I make little murmurs of pleasure – there was a lot of murmuring going on.
I now know why the French wax lyrical about truffles. It is a taste quite unlike anything I have ever tasted, subtle, perfumed, musky, sexy. I had planned to make truffle oil with the remainder but given Mr. T. is arriving for the weekend, that gives me the chance to put some more eggs in close confinement with a truffle.
And given I’m a truffle virgin, I’ll leave the last word to the great Brillat-Savarin: “Whosoever says truffle, utters a grand word, which awakens erotic and gastronomic ideas….”
Preface to ‘The Physiology of Taste’ (1825)