by: Jim Berman
I asked a group of young cooks what they knew about truffles. Of course I got the predictable "chocolate" and "expensive" and "good!" I also, surprisingly got "don't they use pigs to find them?" and "it's like a mushroom." So, given the opportunity to bring some Urbani truffles into the kitchen, I was enthused about the opportunity to do so. Urbani does not deal with the chocolate lovelies that fetch way too much money around Valentine's Day. No, no, the colorful heritage of the Urbani Family brings the subterranean delicacy from the soils of Italy to our table.
Truffles are expensive, and rightfully so. The tuber grows below the surface of forests and fields in rather persnickety underground circumstances. So, no, we are not exploring the chocolate enrobed Godiva delights. And as pricey as the chocolate variety can be, they don't hold a coin to the gold tax that is requisite of procuring truffles. Urbani deals with all-things Truffles; truffle butters, truffle oil, truffle juice, truffles fresh, truffles frozen and truffle slicers, among others. I think the best part of picking which of their specialties to sample is the opportunity to peruse their catalog. The family's history of delivering breathtaking, black-and-white marketing is second only to their gloriously successful history of truffle growing. Stretching back to 1850, the business remains well intact and the family lineage is very much intermingled with the operation of truffle farming. Their offerings stretch beyond just the truffles, but my mission was clear: I wanted to explore this complex tuber from the most reputable growing/farming/marketing family to lend their name to, undeniably, the most expensive food item on the planet.
I opted for a representative selection to try my hand at exploring the reaches of truly extraordinary ingredients. So, some fresh, winter truffles made their way into risotto with caramelized onions and a spot of cream. The mushroomy-pungency of the black truffle works really well with the creamy grains of rice. The tasters agreed; they quipped that such little slivers packed an unbelievable amount of flavor.
Next up was mashed potatoes laced with white truffle oil and a smattering of black truffles. The oil gives a velvety smoothness ripe with that garlicky punch so characteristic of the white truffle flavor. The oil is nothing to take lightly, though; it took me a second batch to lighten my hand of the powerfully flavorful elixir.
The surprising standout was the white truffle butter crostini. Little slabs of sourdough bread smeared with Urbani's white truffle butter and placed under the broiler until the vibrant 'smack' of the white truffles filled the air with an aromatic overflow that was hauntingly beautiful. We left nothing but crumbs in no time.
They are not beautiful and they certainly are not common, so there is an air of mystery (and an air of pungency) that surrounds these fantastically pricy fungal growths. But, with luxury usually comes some reward. The knowledge that the ubiquitous work necessary to bring these to the market adds to truffles' allure. But, the flavor is about what this cook cares. There is a richness, a quality akin to no other ingredient that is worth the expense. Rather uncanny, if you think about it; not very visually appealing, quite perishable and even more finicky when bringing their flavor to the table. Alas, they can "make women more tender and men more lovable," said Alexander Dumas, of the truffle. With all its quirkiness and unflappable seductiveness, truffles make grown cooks weak in the knees. As I sliced through the crispy, unsightly orb, I thought of the pure pleasure I had experienced in succumbing to my primal urge to partake in fantastic ingredients, both common and not.
"This isn't worth saving," asked Evan "should I just chuck it?"
"Well, that's about $100 worth of truffles, so probably not," I quipped
"Eww. It looks gross."
"Well, so does the inside of an oyster, right?"
"I guess," in typical teenage speak, translating to "Leave me alone. I want to go home; you're an old man rambling about some ugly, smelly ball that cost enough to cover my cell phone bill for at least a month…"
And so it goes. While consumers are agreeably becoming more educated about what they eat, some of the finer points of our gastronomic history are going the way of Crystal Pepsi. Mesclun greens are everywhere. Homemade demi glace, going away. Free Range and organic is so everyday, while pâté is so yesterday. Truffles are timeless. What they bring to a dish can not and should not be dismissed with the passage of time. Some foods exist to enrich the soul of men, others to pass time between meals. Truffles can be likened to diamonds; they are both rare, they are both precious and they are both highly sought after. But, you simply can not eat a diamond.
Recipe: Truffled Risotto Milanese