December 05

Two very contrasting meals in two successive nights: one, a truffle dinner in a French home, the other a modern Spanish meal with the chef playing Fat Duck or El Bulli-style tricks.

The truffle dinner was spectacular, both for the quantity of truffle involved and the quality of the food, but the most important factor was - as it should always be at dinner - the warmth of the welcome. As we stood around the kitchen chatting over the Louis Roederer champagne, the canapes of pate de foie gras de canard truffe (hand-made for our hosts with not less than 10% truffle, and generously garnished with same) were being constructed. Meanwhile, thin truffle toasts were heating in the oven: simple, and wonderful. Two thin slices of sourdough pain de campagne sandwiching slices of truffle, buttered and seasoned and slightly crispy from the oven. The most truffly thing I've eaten in a long time, and I've eaten a lot of truffle recently. Then I helped to stir the truffle into the mashed potatoes: great big, almost crunchy lumps of truffle stirred into potatoes cooked in milk and butter, served with a saucisse de Toulouse, specially prepared for the family with large chunks of truffle inside. Put the two together, and you have an obviously simple but also incredibly luxurious dish. Magnificent. A few bottles of good Cahors red, and a good time was guaranteed for all. My thanks to P-J and B. A meal that will live in the memory for a long time.

The second meal (Manairo Restaurant, Barcelona) was also good: inventive, even exciting food, but it couldn't help but suffer in comparison. There were moments of surprise, like the little parcel served in a spoon containing a creamy soup, or the squid bits spooned steaming with dry ice into little shot glasses of intensely pea-green soup, and there were moments of pleasure, but I struggled to really get into it all. Perhaps the fact that much of the dishes were reinventions of Catalan classics that I had no reference for made it difficult, or perhaps the waiter's introductions were losing something because we forced him to do them in English. Either way, fun, expensive and worth eating, but the food will be forgotten long before the previous night's. Thanks, Heidi, for the meal.

And the really sad thing about both meals? On the last days of the Spanish tour, I picked up the cold doing the rounds of the bus. I spent much of the weekend in France exploding with cold, and I still haven't recovered my nose or tastebuds. So much to taste, so little to taste it with. Bugger.

I haven't got time to post any of the pictures from the last week, or to really do justice to events or meals - not tonight, at least - but I would like to mention vultures. In two truffle expeditions in Spain last week, in the Alto Tajo national park and in the hills not far from Pamplona, vultures were wheeling over head while we watched men and dogs find truffles. I was ready for the truffles, but the birds were something of a shock.

In the latter truffiere, in the unpronounceable but charming village of Ollogoyen, the lead truffle dog was called Lycos - "because she's a search engine". Perhaps Peg's successor will be called Google. Sponsorship possibilities...

Some food highlights: the Spanish take on black pudding - a sort of blood sausage without the skin; the mushroom lunch which finished with a "coffee" made from Trompettes de mort macerated with sweet coffee, with a cappuccino foam made from porcini cream (and the chef looked like Peter Sellers); and a truffle omelette in a modest auberge in Cahors that had more good truffle in it than most five course truffle dinners. It helps when France's leading truffle wholesaler is sitting at the same table and picking up the tab.

In France, we've seen the new truffieres of the Richelieu region just south of the Loire, the famous truffle market of Lalbenque, the Pebeyre truffle operation in Cahors, and been shepherded around local truffieres by top French truffle expert Pierre Sourzat and his dog Bou-Bou. I also have 80gm of truffle in the minibar in my hotel room, by way of a present for my kind hosts in London.

Tonight we dine chez Pebeyre, and I suspect truffle may be involved. Tomorrow we drive to Barcelona, and dinner with an American truffle importer on her yacht in the harbour. Then London and NZ. I have to say that I'm looking forward to getting back to my family and my trees. And losing some weight.

Three days in, and the relentless and exemplary hospitality is beginning to show signs of expanding my waistline. Found our first truffles on Saturday, and ate them for lunch.

Alejandro and Jefa (the dog) get stuck in to truffle number three.

We were at the Nacimiento del Rio Mundo in the Sierra de Alcaraz, a huge and torrential waterfall issuing from massive limestone cliffs, with natural truffieres on the stony slopes below the cliffs. Jefa found three truffles, not perfectly ripe - still brownish inside rather than black, but with good aroma. The lunch which featured the truffles was both huge and delicious, an ominous sign of things to come.

The last couple of days we've been touring Don Quixote country, all ancient towns and windmills (and food). Tomorrow it's back to the truffles, this time in the Alto Tajo national park. From a slightly overfed blogger in a hotel in Cuenca, buenos noches...

Murcia,Thursday, a few hours before the conference "gala dinner": In typical Spanish fashion, tonight's meal - which will be excellent, I'm sure - starts at 9-30pm. This is late for a stomach accustomed to dinner at 7, and I haven't fully acclimatised to the Iberian lifestyle. In fact, I've sloped off early from the last session of the day in order to post this and have a nap before the festivities begin. Given that one of the world's leading truffle scientists is threatening to dance all-comers under the table, and that she ran a 100km ultra-marathon earlier this year, stamina is clearly going to be of the essence.

I'm not going to post about the science being done at this workshop, except to say that it raises as many questions about truffles and their cultivation as it answers, but I have learned a hell of a lot: about the truffles of Hungary, the new truffieres of Chile, the truffles of Spain and the mushrooms of the Spanish regions, and the formation of a truffle association in British Columbia where keen growers have already planted their first trees. I have also met a scientist from Finland who is convinced that he's got a good shot at growing the Périgord black up in that frigid corner of the world. Plenty of material to fed into the NZTA research programme, and into the next edition of The Truffle Book - if it ever gets that far.

But it's the networking that's most useful. Putting names to faces, seeing people again, reinforcing links and forging more. I've even sold virtually all the copies of The Truffle Book that I shipped over from NZ. (Thanks Pilar and Asun). So far, nobody's grabbed me by the arm and pointed out any terrible mistakes, for which I am deeply grateful.

Tomorrow afternoon the great truffle tour really begins. If I can get some decent internet connections, I'll try and blog the highlights...