Monday 12 November 2007

It came as a shock.... the great and the good in the culinary firmament when, earlier this year, Truffle Oil was exposed as a fake! Some boffins in a laboratory, somewhere, had worked out how to replicate Bis-(Methylthio)methane, which is apparently responsible for a significant part of making truffles what they are, and it is this artificial compound which accounts for the truffle quality in almost all commercially available truffle oil. If you think about it, bottles of truffle oil almost never - possibly never, in fact - include 'truffle' in their list of contents, but instead refer airily to 'truffle flavour' or 'truffle aroma'. Which is about on a par with the reference to 'Lemon Aroma' that you find on the back of the bleach bottle, the content of which you can be absolutely certain has never come within a million miles of a piece of citrus fruit!

The news about Bis-(Methylthio)methane apparently caused great consternation in restaurant kitchens across the western world, and for a while there was nothing to be seen but white tocques wilting in despair. Or else bristling with outrage, as their owners vowed never to use this mendacious substance ever again. Which is just silly. They'd been perfectly happy to use it the day before, and the substance on their pantry shelves hadn't mysteriously been de-natured by the discovery that it contained only artificially produced Bis-(Methylthio)methane, as opposed to the naturally occurring version. It was also a bit dim, if you think about it, since anybody who has been buying truffle oil over the past twenty years would be only too aware that over that period the bottle sizes have got progressively larger, and the price of the stuff has gone through the floor. It used to be the case that truffle oil came in miniature glass bottles, as though it was Chanel No. 5 - and with a price to match! These days, I have to look twice to make sure I haven't taken from the rack walnut oil in mistake for truffle oil, since they now come in equally large containers. And since the price of truffles has remained as stratospheric as ever, then it doesn't take Einstein to suspect that something must be up!

But, frankly, how much does it actually matter? The addition of truffle oil to scrambled eggs, or porcini risotto, or a Beef Strudel, or a few drops in a salad dressing is a great thing, and unless we strike oil (the black kind) in the back garden, then I'm unlikely ever to be in a position to replace truffle oil with shavings of the real thing. So, as a way of introducing truffle flavour, I'm quite happy to rely on the artificial version..........and although you could never mistake it for the real thing, it's certainly a better option than having nothing at all. It's very similar to the relationship between Vanilla Essence and Vanilla Bean - even the best essence (90% of all production of which, by the way, has no natural Vanilla in it whatsoever, according to the people from Slow Food) is only ever a poor cousin to the real thing, but it still quite clearly has its uses.

And when it comes to Truffles, the real thing is just incomparable. Musty, and intoxicating , and feromonal and quite wonderful. In Cammillo, where they currently charge four euros per gramme, a splendid piece of theatre is played out, where a small set of scales is brought to the table, and the truffle is solemnly weighed before the customer's eyes before being carefully shaved over whatever dish it is they're having, and it is then solemnly re-weighed afterwards to show exactly how much has been served.
Although, I challenge anybody to be able to concentrate on the read-out of a set of scales when they have a dish before them, the aroma of which is enough to fog the senses of even the most mentally acute!

Tonight's Dinner

Beef & Porcini Strudel (including Truffle Oil!), with Porcini Cream sauce

Pork Loin, roast with Mustard & Herbs; Turnip Gratin

Orange Crêpes, stuffed with Caramelised Pear.


Joanna said...

I've recently started making my own vanilla essence - I've posted about it, but, in truth, it's not very difficult, just submerge as many good sticky vanilla beans as you can afford in vodka, seal, and wait as long as you can. Top up with both. Early reports are good.

And you can get rather expensive trees, mostly I think hazels, that have been impregnated with truffle spore (if that's the right word) ... perhaps this year is the year to go for it ... because, as you say, otherwise it's a long shot (apart from the oil)

The Passionate Palate said...

I always was amazed that people believed that truffle oil could be from the "real thing"! I always thought it a good marketing ploy when the oil had one tiny little speck of "something" black floating in the oil to give it some credibility, when, as you said, truffle was not in the list of ingredients.

Pomiane said...

Actually, I don't think the trees are that expensive - there was a stall at Chelsea this year selling them, and I think small-but-promising saplings were about ten pounds. My problem is lack of space, and anybody I know like the Brancolis that have loads of space aren't keen, on the basis that truffles will just attract yet more wild boar onto their land.

And I'm still not convinced that early truffle oil actually didn't have some connection with the real thing - the prices that were charged for it certainly did! I suspect there was a seamless elision into the artificial stuff at some point, and for a period the lucky manufacturers made out like bandits! Anyway,I still maintain it's a perfectly usable product, wherever it comes from.....