Terrific truffles: Get a taste of the ‘diamonds of the kitchen’ while you can
One of the highlights of the culinary calendar is the white-truffle season. By mid-October, gourmands are already anticipating the arrival of the first white truffles of the year and perusing white truffle menus designed by fine-dining chefs.
The preferred white truffles are from Alba and Abruzzo in Italy, and are usually available from the end of October until December, or even sometimes as was the case last year, until January depending on the weather.
"Truffles are a kind of mushroom and it is affected by the weather," says Andrea Oreste Delzanno, chef at Cucina in the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel, who is known for his white truffle menus.
"Sometimes it rains a lot sometimes it's too cold or too hot and the truffle gets mouldy. But last year was a very good season. The season started a bit late but we kept it until January."
Unlike black truffles, which are available most of the year as they are harvested in the autumn and winter in Europe, and Australia and New Zealand, white-truffle season only comes around once and for a short time.
Known for their strong aroma - especially the white ones - truffles grow underground around tree roots and trained pigs or dogs sniff them out.
Female pigs are used as the scent of truffles is similar to the pheromones of male pigs, which could be why the ancient Greeks regarded truffles as aphrodisiacs - modern science agrees.
Europe's great gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin agreed. "Truffle," he said. "As soon as the word is spoken, it awakens lustful and erotic memories."
Whether or not truffles do that for you, the tubers, also known as "diamonds of the kitchen", definitely cause excitement among food-lovers and are held in high esteem especially in French and Italian cuisines.
Traditionally, white truffle is paired with pasta and egg dishes. But we asked three chefs to choose a not-so traditional dish from their white truffle menus this year to share with us.
At Town in Causeway Bay, chef Brian Nagao's white truffle menu consists of some traditional dishes but he wanted to do something different. As he is from Hawaii, he wanted to create some dishes influenced by Hawaiian flavours. "Everybody does French and Italian so I wanted to do Hawaiian this season," he says.
His menu includes dishes such as gnocchi 'taro' king crabmeat, bone marrow and maitake mushrooms.
"I make the gnocchi with taro. Hawaiians eat a lot of taro. They make taro bread, taro mash and gnocchi," the chef says. "I also have a wild duck 'Kalua' crêpe with chestnuts and savoy cabbage. In Hawaii when you go to a Luau (party), they have a Kalua pig. I am using wild duck instead."
One of his starters consists of something he says Hawaiians love to eat - spam. This starter consists of agnolotti spam with 48-month Iberico ham, saikyo, miso and shiso.
"We use a sweeter miso on the bottom, shiso in thick strips, sliced 48-month Iberico ham, crispy Parma ham, flowers for decoration and the white truffle. It's more Hawaiian, Japanese with some Italian. We have two methods of adding the truffles to the dish," Nagao says.
"One. We are going to sell the truffle whole to the customer and we will give them gloves and shaver, and they can shave themselves. If we shave it, it will be a gram at market price. So the menu has two prices. If they buy the truffle whole, it will be a better price."
Delzanno has a veal tenderloin tartare with egg yolk sauce and shaved white truffle on his menu.
"Veal goes very well with truffle because veal does not have a strong taste like beef. It's more of a milky taste, that's why we decided to choose this combination," the chef says. "It's the best combination as the meat enhances the truffle, and the truffle does not overwhelm the meat.
"There is some egg yolk mayonnaise made from Italian organic eggs, slowly cooked to pasteurise it, then we add a little bit of truffle oil. Then we add some chopped shallots."
There are six dishes on his truffle a la carte menu including a slow cooked French guinea fowl roulade on mashed potatoes with shallots, glazed chestnut and white truffle and traditional dishes such as scrambled egg on toast with white truffle and handmade tagliolni.
"I use white truffle from all around Piedmont not just Alba," the chef says.
"If you find white truffle around Tuscany and the middle parts of Italy or the south, they're totally different [in taste] because of the soil. Ones from Alba or around other parts of Piedmont within 50km of Alba, the soil and the temperature is about the same."
For a white truffle dessert, we went to Wagyu Takumi as executive chef Mitsuru Konishi and pastry chef Matsubara Asuka dish up white truffle and caramel mousse with white truffle ice cream.
"We also have white truffle macarons," Konishi says.
"I wanted to do a special white truffle dessert. Last year, we made white truffle ice cream, so I collaborated with chef Asuka and we created the white truffle mousse.
"Before we decide on the menu, we experiment and do some tastings after which we discuss the balance of flavours and we need to make sure that the white truffle is not too strong and the textures are balanced.
"This dessert comprises caramel which we make with sugar, chocolate biscuit, walnuts with caster sugar and white truffle ice cream."
Other items on his white truffle tasting menu include pan-fried Hokkaido scallops with sea urchin gratin, slow-cooked French blue lobster, Japanese persimmons with fennel purée and fig chutney and charcoal grilled Hida wagyu tenderloin and wagyu beef tartare with monaka biscuit.
Konishi is known for his French cuisine using some Japanese ingredients and was recently appointed by the French government to the rank of a knight (chevalier) for his outstanding services to France in promoting French fine cuisine.