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December 19, 2005

Truffles. Betcha can't eat just one.

Dsc00127_2 Little did I understand the dangerous path I'd set for myself last Tuesday when I decided to make one brief phone call.  The call was to Cheese Boutique, in my opinion the best food store in Toronto.  Sure, it's best known for its remarkable selection of cheeses -- not to mention having the unique distinction amongst the city's cheesemongers of still practicing the dying art of affinage, the maturing and aging of cheese -- but it always offers far more than that, like fresh produce, dried pastas, and fresh Italian truffles.  On the day in question, I had phoned to discover if they happened to have any for sale.

Now, my wife and I are great fans of the truffle.  One of our most memorable meals, which was as expensive as it was enjoyable, was a dinner in Bologna in which every course featured truffles: truffled spreads, white truffle risotto, tenderloin in a black truffle sauce, etc.  Of all the meals in all the places, that singular supper comes up often, and always with great fondness for us both, when we talk about our most memorable food experiences together.

Of course, explaining the glories of the truffle is not easy.  My wife and I both have a preference for the white truffle from Alba, a fungus with a fragrance and flavour that are not easily described: it's a little musty, quite earthy, somewhat mushroomy, and, to my mind, ever so slightly garlicky.  In other words, indescribable.

The one thing that can be said about truffles, especially the white ones, is that they are astronomically expensive: Cheese Boutique sold us four tiny, Alban white truffles totaling twenty-four grams, at ten dollars per gram, and one small, twelve gram, Umbrian black truffle, at two dollars per gram.  Admittedly, that's a pretty steep price for an evening's pleasure, but I don't mind paying that kind of money for quality, especially to Cheese Boutique, where I was once shown a basket brimming with black truffles they wouldn't sell to me because they didn't find the quality of the truffles satisfactory. 

Luckily, we have a wonderful friend who always seems willing to participate in our culinary whims.  Ryan is a person who likes his food and his drink, and who, more importantly, is always willing to try something new and is willing to spend a little money to do it.  I really like that.

So, based on nothing more than the promise of a new taste and some risotto, Ryan lugged himself out of bed on Saturday, and came with me to the Cheese Boutique.  Now, I'm a bit of a soft touch when it comes to my food shopping.  I've already mentioned in my first post that I have a penchantDsc00135 for buying things I don't need, but I like to think I took it to a new level this time: after buying almost three hundred dollars in truffles, we sidled up to the cheese counter.  After selecting several kinds of cheese -- including a triple creme Brie Supreme that is, apparently without any comic intent, described as "A gentle, 62% butter fat indulgence" -- what should happen into my line of sight but a sign touting the arrival of the Vacherin Mont D'Or

"What's a Vacherin Mont D'Or?" I blurt, knowing full well that the die is already cast.

Do I get a detailed explanation of the origins and flavour of this cheese?  No.  What I get is: "You're buying it.  You have to buy it.  It's perfect with black truffles.  You just cut back the outer membrane, add the sliced black truffle, then you bake it in a low oven until it reaches a soupy consistency.  It's probably the only black truffle dish that's better than white truffles."

Now, to the sane human mind this response seems... inadequate.  To me, this is all the justification I need to make another rash food purchase.  Do I hear my friend when he asks me to check the price?  No, I just buy, buy, buy.  It will probably not surprise you to learn that the Vacherin Mont D'Or is actually not a cheese that is easy on the pocketbook.  Our little bundle of joy set us back fifty dollars.

"Cost be damned," you say (and kudos to you), "how does it taste?"  Well, in my opinion, not so good.  I did as instructed, but I found the cheese had a taste that is reminiscent of brussels sprouts.  That's a real shame, because there may be nothing in the world I hate more than brussels sprouts, even when showered with a generous amount of black truffle.  At least my wife and Ryan enjoyed it.

Dsc00136 No matter, white truffles to the rescue.  We actually had enough white truffle to last us two dinners.  The first, last night, was a white truffle risotto that was extremely tasty.  Few bases are better suited to conveying the flavour of white truffle than risotto, which is ideal at letting any ingredient carry the flavour melody while it happily supplies the background harmonies.  Ryan, thankfully discovered he has something of a taste for truffles, and he now understands why it's such an elusive flavour to describe.

Tonight we kept things simpler and lighter, by enjoying a simple salad of mixed baby greens, tomato, and parmesan with extra virgin olive oil and twenty-five year old balsamico, served alongside some scrambled eggs with our remaining white truffle.  I'd never tried truffle with eggs before, and I have to admit I'm a little sad I waited so long.  I think we all found that the scrambled eggs let the white truffle assert itself more than did the risotto.

Dsc00140_2 Of course, I began by describing a phone call I'd made that set me down a "dangerous path", and, ultimately, this post is something of a cautionary tale.  You see, in the process of shaving truffles for the risotto, I had one of those horrible truffle accidents you only ever read about (in blogs like this, for example).  I don't often call dibs on a plate of food, but I had to last night because I put a little bit more of myself into last night's meal than usual.  That's right, I accidentally shaved my thumb.

PS: Enjoy this truffle story?  There's another great one here, courtesy of Chez Pim.


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To avoid sounding completely decadent, let me note for the record that our truffle dinner in Bologna was a special occasion: my birthday while on our honeymoon. We're not exactly in the habit of eating truffles in front of the TV -- not that there's anything wrong with that!
PS. I don't think truffles are in any way garlicky -- and the Vacherin did smell like Brussel sprouts. Delicious, creamy Brussel sprouts.

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