It is a measure of how much eating out habits in India have changed that whereas when I first wrote about truffles, readers were bemused, these days truffles crop up on menu after menu. It is, I guess, also a measure of how much more we are prepared to spend on restaurant meals compared to the past but that, as we shall see, can be debated.
But first, what is a truffle? The simple answer is that it is a kind of mushroom found widely in Europe though it is most commonly harvested in Italy and France. The point of a truffle is the intensity of smell and flavour and most dishes that use truffles require very little – a few scrapings perhaps – for the flavour to infuse everything.
There are many kinds of truffle but the two most popular varieties are white (found most often in Alba in the Piedmont region of Italy) and black (found all over France and in Italy). There are also summer truffles which are related to the black truffle but have a much weaker flavour. The essential difference between a black truffle and a white truffle is that you use black truffles as vegetables while white truffles are a condiment. In classic French cuisine, black truffles crop up again and again as the ultimate luxury ingredient and are used in cooking. The white truffle, on the other hand, cannot be cooked (heat destroys the flavour) and is usually scraped raw on top of dishes to impart a unique flavour.
Most expensive French restaurants will have fresh truffles in the kitchen though they are constrained by the truffle’s seasonality. Usually, you only find truffles in the winter though summer truffles are available at other times as their name suggests.
White truffles are less easy to find. Many Italian restaurants will serve them in the winter but equally, many others will not. Unlike black truffles which form the bedrock of French luxury cuisine, white truffles are not so integral to Italian food.
Until the beginning of this century, few, if any, Indian restaurants bothered with truffles. Then some started using truffle oil (usually a synthetic derivative of the petroleum industry which mimics the smell of truffles) and truffle paste. Later, chefs began using preserved black truffles which are better than nothing but which hardly give you any indication of what the fuss is about.
About three or four years ago, this began to change. Perhaps it was the influx of expatriate Italian chefs, many of whom came from hotels where it was traditional to order white truffles during season but somehow more and more restaurants began offering truffle menus in season. At first, chefs were sparing with the quantities of truffle used. I remember going to a truffle festival at La Piazza at the Hyatt many years ago and regretting not having brought along a dog to sniff for truffles because I certainly couldn’t detect any in the food. But slowly, the expatriate chefs decided that Indians were wisening up and proper truffle dishes began appearing on the menu.
Over the last two years I have had white truffle at San Gimignano at Delhi’s Imperial, at Celini at Bombay’s Grand Hyatt, at Diva in Delhi and at many other restaurants. This makes a change from the situation that prevailed just five years ago when I used to take my own truffles to restaurants and watch chefs stare unfamiliarly at them.
Some chefs treat it as their job to popularise unusual and interesting foods. Giancarlo – the widely travelled and extremely knowledgeable executive chef at the Four Seasons in Bombay – is one of them. Some weeks ago, when the truffle season had just begun in Alba, Giancarlo had already received a shipment of high quality truffles.
He not only sold them at the restaurants in his hotel but also began offering cooking classes at which he taught people how to use truffles in the kitchen. I asked him for some of his recipes and you’ll find them on these pages.
My friend Ritu Dalmia of Diva is also one of India’s great popularisers. Even though she’s had limited success in pushing white truffles at Diva, she persists in getting regular shipments and offering them to guests at cost price. This year Ritu ordered her truffles shortly after Giancarlo did. And though Giancarlo’s sold well, Ritu had difficulty pushing hers. Nevertheless, her truffle dishes remain the best value in Delhi.
Black truffles are slightly more difficult to find. The only restaurant I know of in all of India that keeps truffles in the kitchen almost all year round is Delhi’s Orient Express.
The Orient Express is easily India’s finest French restaurant and the chefs spare no expense in keeping all of the ingredients that characterise fine French cuisine. The Orient Express chef D N Sharma is something of a truffle expert. And when he can’t find black truffles because they’re out of season, he will order summer truffles and double or treble the quantity of truffle used in each recipe to ensure that the truffle flavour never varies.
D N Sharma gets white truffles in season but argues, reasonably enough, that these are not really meant for French cuisine. Nevertheless, the biggest white truffle I have ever seen in India was purchased two years ago by the Orient Express and chef D N did a whole meal based around that single truffle.
If you are interested in ordering truffles this winter, then here are some tips. Remember that pound for pound, truffles are the single most expensive ingredient in the food world. If that sounds daunting, then remember also that no matter how expensive food can be, it is rarely as expensive as wine.
For instance, Giancarlo sells his truffles at Rs 2,000 per serving. That may sound like a lot of money (though frankly, given what restaurant prices are like these days, it is not much above the average) but it is still a lot cheaper than wine. A good bottle of wine will cost upwards of Rs 4,000 at most restaurants. And to get the really good stuff, you will have to spend much more. So it really is up to you. What would you rather have: two servings of the world’s most expensive vegetable or a bottle of reasonable wine? I know that during truffle season, I’ll take truffles over wine any time.
If you do want to try white truffles, remember that they are one ingredient that does not depend on the skill of a chef. The easiest way to enjoy the flavour of truffles is to get someone to make you two fried eggs, sunny side up, and to then grate the white truffle over the eggs. You can do the same thing with buttery scrambled eggs and some chefs will use poached or baked eggs.
If you want something more substantial than that, a simple plate of egg noodles (tagliolini) in a butter sauce will do. Grate the truffle over the pasta. Or, you can order a simple risotto and have them slice the truffle over it.
You can be even more basic. If you have a strongly flavoured fresh white truffle then all you need do is to butter a slice of good country bread and to put the truffle on top. Black truffles are more complicated and there is a variety of recipes for them. At The Orient Express, D N Sharma makes a warm truffle soufflé (same idea: truffles plus eggs) and does a variation of Paul Bocuse’s famous consommé with truffles. However you eat your truffles, do not be put off by the reputation or the stories about their price. There is far too much food snobbery in the world, already.
Just remember that at the end of the day, these are just mushrooms dug out from beneath the surface of the earth, wiped clean of soil and delivered to your plate. When you eat truffles, you are eating the fruit of the earth. And when you do that, there’s no room for frippery or snobbery.