June 06

18g. Harvested at 2-25pm on Wednesday, June 14th 2006.

We were on the way out of the truffière. Peg was bored, more interested in sniffing down mouseholes than round trees, keen to get back to her bone. As she passed the last hazel, I decided to stick my trowel into the earth at its base, to see if there was much root mass close to the suckers. The little trench was a couple of inches deep, and I had a sniff of the soil - as one does - and, yes, there was a hint of truffle. Wishful thinking has led me to this point many times. Damp earth is one of the aromas in a truffle's armoury. I scraped a little more earth, carefully. No mistaking the smell. A real truffle. I dug a little more, and knocked the end off the truffle. A strangled expletive emerged. Peg was unimpressed, off after mice. I dropped the trowel and used my fingers to carefully rip the truffle from the soil. The already beautiful day - blue and cold, snow on the hills - became brighter. It wasn't fully ripe - still slightly reddish in the skin, and with brown rather than black flesh, but it had a nice scent. It looks like we're a week or 10 days away from full ripeness - in line with the expectations of other local truffle growers.

First question. What will I do with it? I'll hang on to it until next week, to use as Exibit A at a talk I'm giving. Take a few more photographs of it and its tree. Then I'll eat it. Peg and I will return to truffle hunting after the NZ Truffle Association conference at the end of the month. And she'll have to stop relying on charm to earn her bones. Nose to ground, dog...

Second question. How many will we have? No idea. It won't be the only one there, I'm sure. The hazel that produced it is not in any way remarkable, no outstanding brulée, not huge. Friends can look forward to some fine meals.

I had Oeufs aux truffes sans truffes for breakfast today. Good days begin with truffled eggs.

My views on truffle oil are probably becoming clear to readers of this blog, and I'm always glad to get support in high places - in this case from Joel Robuchon and Alain Passard in France. They're upset at the increasing use of flavour additives in classical French cuisine, of which arôme de truffe is just one example. Adam Sage covers the issue at The Times Online:

“It is shameful,” said M Passard, who claims to use only natural ingredients at his celebrated Parisian restaurant, l’Arpège. “I don’t know what to call the people who use these chemicals, but they are not cooks. Cooking is about seasons and nature.”
M Robuchon, widely considered to be one of the most talented chefs of the past 20 years, agreed. He said: “I am 200 per cent against the use of artificial flavours and additives.” However, such flavours appear to be an increasingly common ingredient in French cuisine, with chefs looking for quick, cheap recipes.

Many of the arômes come from Chef Simon, a French restaurant supplier. Their site is an eye opener. This, for instance, is how to make oeufs aux truffes sans truffes sans truffes. "Oeufs aux truffes" are truffled eggs (recipe in my book). "Oeufs aux truffes sans truffes" are truffled eggs without truffles - that is, the eggs are truffled by storage with truffles, and absorb a lot of flavour. You can cook them without truffle and still enjoy a good hit of flavour. "Oeufs aux truffes sans truffes sans truffes" are that dish made without any real truffle at all, by using their arôme. And they claim it's astonishing. I claim it's fraud.

They also suggest that it's OK to use cheap Chinese truffles, with a dose of arôme. If there are restaurateurs who think serving that to their customers is acceptable, they should be shot. But there are plenty prepared to overuse truffle oil... Education is the key. They all need to read my book...

Since we're all primates, why not live on the same diet as the monkeys in the zoo? That's what this chap is doing, but he isn't munching bananas. He's eating ZuPreem primate dry animal food, presumably the monkey version of cat biscuits. You can read his weight stats, see videos, and track progress on his blog - which is truly funny.

I am not tempted to emulate him. Not at all. Never.

Although Kalahari truffles are not highly valued outside Namibia, there are signs that this might be about to change. AllAfrica.com reports that scientists are looking for funds to research the truffle's partner plants - which they say is the "wild melon fruit". Other Terfezia spp have been succesfully grown in truffieres in Spain, but with a different host - the rock rose, so it will be an interesting project if it gets underway. If they can ship fresh truffles up to the Middle East, they could be on to a nice little earner, but they might be in for a shock if they think they can command the same price as Italian whites...

I don't like truffle oil. Neither does LA Times' writer S Irene Virbila:

"I quite possibly would have enjoyed the steak 'n' eggs — steak tartare topped with a quail egg — if it hadn't been so doused with truffle oil that it was like eating raw beef marinated in after-shave."

I wouldn't want to be the restaurant she was reviewing - apart from being incredibly expensive and producing uninspiring food, they were using the oil like ketchup:

"Poussin pot-au-feu is baby chicken in its juices with wild mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, fresh corn and other spring vegetables. But hold the truffle oil. In one meal, our group happened to get four dishes with truffle oil. That constitutes abuse."

I've noted before that Ms Virbila knows her truffles, and it's good to see that we agree about truffle oil too. As anyone who reads my book will discover, all commercially available truffle oils are 100% artificial, even if they have a little slice of something that looks like truffle at the bottom of the bottle. It's much easier and a lot cheaper to dose some oil with an entirely artificial cocktail of the principal chemical components of truffle smell than it is to take fresh truffle and try and make it give up its goodness to the oil.

Truffle oils are like cartoon versions of the real thing. A fresh truffle produces lots of different flavour and aroma components - the artificial versions use only the commonest chemicals to create a much simplified smell and flavour. A bit like doing a painting by numbers version of a Picasso, and then trying to pass it off as the real thing.

I use truffle oil to train the incredibly charming Peg. If I see it on a menu, I avoid that dish. I have been known to make pointed comments to waiters in posh restaurants. I mean, would they dare serve tinned asparagus?