October brings the start of the three-month season for harvesting white truffles. For chefs, it means seeking out the best suppliers, crossing their fingers and hoping for a remarkable sample.
Dubai chef excited at white truffle encounter
Alessandro Salvatico can distinctly remember the first time he encountered white truffles.
He was 14 years old and had just started working weekends at the Osteria dal Gal Vesti in Piedmont, Italy, when the head chef presented him with a particularly gnarled specimen and invited him to inhale its bouquet.
"It was emotional," says Salvatico, now 31. If I didn't know better, I could swear his bottom lip is trembling. "I had never seen anything like it before.
"I did not know how to handle it and then when I tasted it - well, I realised why people dream about it. It's the king of products for Italian cooking."
Finding the perfect white truffle has become a lifelong pursuit for the head chef at Ristorante in the Armani Hotel, Dubai.
October brings the start of the three-month season for harvesting white truffles, or alba madonna and, for chefs such as Salvatico, it means imbuing their menus with truffle-infused flavours, vying to seek out the best suppliers, crossing their fingers for a fruitful year and waiting expectantly for their shipments to arrive in the hope of a remarkable sample.
Truffles inspire a peculiar fervour in chefs and gourmands. They are, I discover, the fruit of a subterranean mushroom and are ectomycorrhizal, which means they colonise the roots of a host to gain sustenance.
Doesn't sound terribly exotic, does it? And when Salvatico, who has launched a truffle masterclass at Ristorante to invoke the same devotion in its diners, reverently lays out specimens, the black truffle looks like a charred piece of broccoli while the white truffle resembles a wizened piece of ginger.
Yet despite their unremarkable appearance, they can change hands for thousands of dirhams per kilo. Battles are fought over the biggest, the rarest, the tastiest.
Truffle hunters rise before dawn, trained dogs in hand, to sniff out the finest fungi before their competitors beat them to it.
Stanley Ho from Macau set a world record in 2007 - and repeated it in 2010 - by paying Dh1.2 million at auction for a prized white truffle, or tuber magnatum, weighing 1.5kg.
And according to the-18th century epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, they are the "diamond of the kitchen".
"Everyone should try them once," declares Salvatico. A Piedmont native, he hails from the most famous truffle-producing region in the world.
It takes a precarious set of circumstances - chalk-like soil, just the right amount of rain and heat - to produce the tubers. They can be cultivated but aficionados swear by those found in the wild for their earthy, pungent taste.
While the most sought-after white truffles are found on the roots of oak and hazel trees around Alba in Italy between October and December, black truffles can grow year-round in Europe.
My first encounter with white truffles was at an exquisite seven-course gala dinner at the Hotel Cipriani in Venice (if you are going to try truffle for the first time anywhere, there cannot be many places finer than the Cipriani) when the waiters brought out an enormous 1kg Alba tuber bought that morning for Dh24,000.
There may have been a velvet-lined tray involved. I don't remember. All I can recall is thinking it looked like a brain as they paraded it in front of guests, who oohed and aahed as the waiters shaved generous helpings into their risottos. I took a mouthful, flaked with truffle worth several hundred dirhams flaked on top and the taste was so potent, so alien, it was simply overwhelming.
"We wait for up to 10 months of the year for the white truffle," Salvatico tells our class of eight. "You can get strawberries and asparagus all year round but there is a short period when the truffle is at its best, usually at the end of October.
"It is untouched by the sun and so delicate that if it rains too much, if it is too cold or too hot, it affects the production and the price."
They grow about 30cm underground and are invisible to the naked eye. Their perfume, says Salvatico, is complex and rated on a scale of one to 10, with the less aromatic summer black truffle ranked at three and the white truffle at the top end of the spectrum. They are used sparingly in the restaurant, with the white variety costing between Dh19,000 and Dh24,000 per kilo while the black truffle ranges from Dh2,000 a kilo in the summer to Dh10,000 in the winter. But even though they have a shelf life of a week after being flown in packed in towels and dry ice, none is wasted and any shavings left over are cooked in butter.
Salvatico whirls us through three dishes prepared from scratch in Ristorante's open kitchen - Angus beef tartare on Parmesan fondue with shaved Norcia truffle, egg yolk tagliolini with white truffle and roasted sea bass with cauliflower purée and white truffle - while bombarding us with tips.
As he expertly kneads pasta dough and whizzes it through a pasta-making machine, he tells us to scrimp on the egg if we plan to dry our pasta or use egg yolk for a richer taste.
Eggs, cheese and meat are the perfect partners for truffles because fats and protein give a smoother, more rounded taste.
And if his truffle know-how means he is used to the finer things in life, it is a philosophy he imbues throughout his menu.
The wild sea bass is line-caught in France and in his kitchen less than 48 hours after being plucked from the sea; the flour and semolina for the pasta are the finest from Italy; the eggs have to weigh 50g; the beef is grass-fed and the Parmesan flaked into the sauce is aged to 24 months.
"It is important to respect the produce," he says. "Italians give the same level of importance to meat, fish and vegetables. A good tomato can be the same as a good cut of beef, so we are prepared to pay for quality."
As he puts the finishing touches to his dishes, our group sits down to eat and silence falls, only broken by murmurs of appreciation. The tartare is declared meltingly good, the skeins of tagliolini rendered silkier still by the wafer-thin flakes of truffle and the sea bass is given an earthy, richer flavour.
Salvatico nods approvingly. "Cooking is about sharing," he says. "Every important decision in the world is made at a dinner table. It is not just about sitting and eating but about knowing the difference between black and white truffles, knowing your sea bass - it is about getting pleasure from the simple things."
The next truffle masterclass will take place on November 9 from 10am to 2pm, including a three-course lunch with paired drinks. Prices are Dh700 for individuals and Dh1,000 per couple. Email restaurant.reservations@Armanihotels.com or call 04 888 3444 to book.
Fresh truffles are available to order from Italtouch, 050 557 3137; www.italtouch.com. A selection will also be on sale in Market and Platters, Dubai Marina.