04 January 2018
Just A Truffle
French cuisine moves north.
By Chin Chin
Did you see the news? No, not the bit about the tragic death of the aardvark in a fire at London zoo, or the bit about the rare pig which was thought to be extinct, but the news from Paris where a 21g truffle has been found in a hotel roof garden, nestling by the base of a hornbeam tree. Not a top truffle as it happens but good quality middle-of-the-road fare, suitable for eating with saucisson, scallops or potatoes. At an estimated price of €5000 per kilogram, it weighs in at just over €100.
Of course it caused a great deal of excitement in France where truffles are near to their hearts, in fact about 15 cm below them in the case of the average male. It isn’t just this particular truffle which has got them salivating, however, but the possibility that there will be others to follow. What a prospect! Henry IV (no, Navarre not Bolingbroke, you ignorant peasant) wanted every Frenchman to have a chicken in his pot each Sunday. Hoover’s 1928 campaign developed this theme, adding in a car for good measure (although, in the case of the car, in the yard rather than the pot). However, those chickens, and indeed the cars, were destined for Americans. Will the French now be able to redouble? Not only will everyone have a chicken but they will have the truffles to go with it. Magnifique! Parfait! Le dejeuner will last all afternoon.
Still, the main beneficiaries of the discovery may not be French at all. As climate change bites and the weather suitable for the various crops moves further north, more and more traditional French products can be produced in Britain. Champagne, for a start. Until recently it would have been laughable to talk about British sparkling wine challenging that manufactured around Rheims. Impossible! Ridicule! Ma foi! Other French expressions of offended disbelief! Yet now, open a bottle of Nyetimber or Chapel Down, and it becomes clear that the art of making good fizz has crossed the Channel and that, there being no artificial limit to the amount of wine which can be produced in Kent or Sussex, Champagne has a very formidable rival.
Well, apply the same logic to truffles. At one time they could only been grown in Southern European oak woods. Now it is high-rises in Paris. The logic of global warning says that before long truffles will be harvested in the warmer parts of England, and, the centre of London being warmer than the rest of the country, there is no reason why they should not be harvested in my house.
Actually, I have already had a little encouragement. You see, one of the radiators on the landing leaks slightly and there has long been a damp smell coming from the cupboard under the stairs. I was going to have a word with the landlord about it but fortunately I never got round to it because, looking into the cupboard the other day, I saw of a small group of mushrooms growing in the corner. Was my fortune made? Had I witnessed the arrival of the exclusively priced Hackney truffle or were the mushrooms, on the other hand, some form of poisonous toadstool? It was important to understand which since the marketing is different, the demand for poisonous toadstools being restricted to those with deadly enemies or rich relatives.
Right then, mushroom book in hand and head into the cupboard. The first step is to identify the smell. Is there an aroma of top French restaurants or a scent of rotting decay? I sniffed hard and it was certainly encouraging. The smell was a warm musty one with something cheesy about it. Had I managed to grow some sort of truffle au fromage, not previously discovered by man? I put on my best Howard Carter expression and sniffed again. Yes, distinctly cheesy but with a certain rotten mustiness of the sort you get when you make home-made beer but have forgotten to wash out the apparatus beforehand. That wasn’t so good (nor indeed was the beer) but I took another sniff. Oddly the mustiness did not seem to come from the mushrooms at all but the other side of the cupboard. That is when I remembered that this was the cupboard in which I kept my trainers. I removed everything except the mushrooms and tried again. Not nearly as bad.
It was certainly good enough to move on to the tasting part of the test but there was a difficulty. I don’t really eat mushrooms and truffles and wouldn’t know a bad one from a good one. Indeed, if I suffered from food poisoning I wouldn’t know whether the truffles were bad or whether I simply had an allergy to fungi. I would have to find some experienced truffle eaters to take the test. Provided I didn’t give them too big a portion the bad results should be reasonably limited, so I set off down to the Italian cafe at the end of the street. Fortunately there was only one person behind the counter so, when his back was turned, I slipped a few slices of my own mushrooms into the egg and truffle salad on the counter. Then I ordered a latte, took a table by the door and, having (as it were) tethered my goat, sat down to wait.
It’s extraordinary how many people can go in and out of a cafe without ordering egg and truffle salad, but eventually a large man came in and ordered a portion. He certainly looked like an experienced truffle eater so I hugged my coffee and waited for his reaction. I didn’t have to wait very long. He didn’t rate the salad at all. Then the owner of the cafe tasted it too and he didn’t rate it either. In fact he put it in the bin for the pigs. As I was unlikely to get more evidence, I slipped quietly away.
Still, the whole thing leaves myriad uncertainties. Was it my mushrooms/truffles which were sub-standard or the ones which were already there? Perhaps my truffles partially redeemed an otherwise disgusting dish. Just how did those pigs get on? There is really no way to find out. Can I find another delicatessen whose truffle dish is near to the front of the counter..?