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Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, December 15, 2012
Our attitude to truffles is changing. Now, they are all around us – in upmarket grocery shops, at weddings, parties, restaurants. But they’ll always be a luxury. One measure of how quickly India is changing – in food and wine terms, at least – is our attitude to truffles. When I first wrote about truffles, most readers of Rude Food knew very little about them. They associated the term ‘truffle’ with those round chocolates and were not sure how it was pronounced. Was it ‘troofle’ or ‘truffle’? (It is, of course, the latter.)

TrufflesNow, just five or six years later, truffles are all around us. Upmarket grocery shops in our metropolitan cities sell bottled truffles and truffle sauces. Chefs reach for their bottles of truffle oil at the slightest provocation. Truffles are served at top weddings and parties. And restaurants import white truffles every autumn when the season begins in Italy.

I’ve always been something of a truffle devotee. So, five years ago, I would go to Italian restaurants carrying my own truffles (and usually, a truffle slicer) so that I could grate them over eggs, pasta or risotto.

Strictly speaking, the chefs would have been within their rights to refuse to let me eat my own truffles. But, in reality, most were so thrilled to see fresh white truffles, that nobody ever refused. (If I had asked to be able to use my own Kraft cheese, on the other hand, I’m sure they would have thrown me out.)

But these days, you don’t need to take your own truffles. Let’s take the example of Travertino, the swish Italian restaurant at the Delhi Oberoi.

Many years ago, when I first took a white truffle to the restaurant, the Italian chef was so delighted that he tried to devise a special truffle menu while the Indian chefs all lined up to smell and feel the truffle because they’d only read about fresh white truffles but had never actually seen them.

BLACK, WHITE AND REVERED ALL OVER! The black truffle of Perigord is the basic truffle of French cookery and the white is a condiment rather than a cooking ingredient

Two weeks ago, the same Travertino was serving an elaborate truffle feast, supervised by a Michelin-starred chef from Italy, and the hotel’s own Soumya Goswami. The Oberoi chefs were shaving fresh white truffles on to thin, crispy pizzas at Threesixty, the all-day dining restaurant located next door to Travertino. Nobody thought of truffles as being such a big deal any longer.

In fact, I think I’ve probably eaten more truffles in Delhi this season than I’ve ever eaten in my life. The Princess’s two parties for her husband’s birthday turned into truffle fests as guests ate alarming quantities of the finest Piedmont truffles with pizza bianca, risotto, tagliolini or simply grated over fried eggs.

The Princess was being extraordinarily generous. But even those of us who did not benefit from her largesse had many opportunities to eat truffles elsewhere.

At Sevilla, the Mediterranean restaurant at Delhi’s Claridges (now back on the gastronomic map), I had a truffle dinner with the hotel’s general manager, Oliver Martin: baked eggs with white truffle, pasta with truffle and then finally, truffles freshly grated on Japanese wagyu. Nor was this a special treat for me: the truffles were on the Sevilla menu.

Delhi’s truffle queen is Ritu Dalmia who championed truffles long before the deluxe hotels did

Delhi’s truffle queen is Ritu Dalmia who championed truffles long before the deluxe hotels did. When Ritu first started importing truffles for her Diva restaurant, hotels were reluctant to invest in truffle menus arguing that a) it was too expensive and b) that Indians did not know what truffles were anyway.

A rare exception was Delhi’s Hyatt Regency, but the one truffle dinner I went to at La Piazza at the beginning of the last decade featured a minimal quantity of truffle.

Ritu, on the other hand, took the job of popularising truffles in India as though it was a crusade. She had been to a truffle fair in Alba and had struck up a friendship with a truffle hunter. So, rather than go through importers, she bought directly from the hunter. That way she had guaranteed quality and cut out the middle-man, thus shaving a quarter or so off the price.

Consequently, she was able to charge relatively reasonable rates for truffles. She also offered an inducement. If you ordered your truffles with a bowl of pasta or risotto, she only charged for the truffles (which she sold at cost) and threw in the pasta and rice for free. Many people in Delhi ate their first white truffles at Diva thanks to Ritu’s missionary zeal.

Ritu still imports truffles. She shaved some on a plate of ravioli for me at the Italian Cultural Centre where she runs the Café. But her main truffle outlet is the more formal main Diva restaurant where the faithful gather every winter for fresh white truffles. Moreover, she advises well-heeled clients on where in Italy to get their white truffles from for parties, banquets, weddings and the like. (There were fresh white truffles on the menu at Amitabh Bachchan’s 70th birthday party at which Ritu did some of the catering.)

Ironically, the popularity of truffles in India has come at a time when prices are at an all-time high. Truffles are an agricultural product, heavily dependent on the weather. This year, because the rains were late, the crop has been poor and scarcity has driven prices up. Ritu buys her truffles at around 5,000 euro a kilo (versus 3,800 euro a kilo in previous years) and I suspect that hoteliers who go through agents pay even more.

SNIFF THEM OUT Now there are many opportunities to eat truffles at places such as Sevilla, the Mediterranean restaurant at Delhi’s Claridges which has truffles on the menu

All this means that truffles are not cheap. But compared to other luxuries, they are not exorbitant. Let’s take the example of the Delhi Oberoi where a shaving of truffles on a plate of pasta (around three grams) will set you back R1,500. This seems like a lot till you realise that a single glass of the basic Moët et Chandon champagne at the same hotel costs R1,800. And champagne is relatively easy to come by, while truffles are rare, seasonal and truly special. (Ritu charges R480 per gram of white truffle but she still throws in the pasta/eggs/rice etc. into which the truffles are shaved for free.)
Made to order When I first took a white truffle to Travertino, the swish Italian restaurant at the Delhi Oberoi (left), the Italian chef was so delighted that he tried to devise a special truffle menu

If you are curious about truffles and want to try them, here are some basic facts. There are over 300 varieties of truffle but only three count for very much. The black truffle of Perigord is the basic truffle of French cookery because it stands up to heat and you can cook with it. This is a winter truffle but the season is quite long. The summer truffle is a relative of the black truffle (the sort of relationship that rosé has to red wine), but appears in summer. It has about one-fifth the aroma and flavour of the black truffle so you need to use lots of it. (But then, it is also much cheaper).

The white truffle is the most expensive of all truffles (between three to five times the cost of the black) and is a condiment rather than a cooking ingredient because it cannot take heat and must be shaved raw on to your plate. This is currently the world’s most desirable truffle and the season is short: October to the end of December or early January.

Most people recognise truffles by their aroma rather than their flavour (which is an acquired taste.) But like most aromas, (vanilla, rose, sandalwood etc.), the smell can be recreated in a lab from chemicals at a marginal cost.

So, be careful of so-called truffle products (especially truffle oil) which have never been near a true truffle but consist of a cheap medium (oil, butter, mushroom paste, etc.) to which the chemical aroma of truffles is added. (Of course, there is also real truffle oil, flavoured with real truffles but 95 per cent of the stuff on the market is over-priced, chemical rubbish).

In India – as in much of the world – white truffles are all the rage. But if you want to experiment with truffles then I would urge you to try the black variety as well. Black truffles are cheaper, pack a powerful punch, are versatile and have a longer season.

No matter what you do, however, truffles will always be a luxury; the sort of thing you only indulge in very rarely.

But that’s okay. All of us are entitled to a little luxury, now and then!

From HT Brunch, December 16

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