Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Truffle Magic

Mainstay of haute cuisine, revered by gastronomes everywhere, truffles have steadily climbed the pretentiousness index joining the ranks of beluga caviar and Cristal champagne. For years I’ve wondered what all the fuss was about. What magical powers could these knobby clods of fungi possibly possess? What about them causes people to swoon and readily empty their pocketbooks? Thanks to my friend Karine, I was about to find out. She had made reservations at chef Clément Bruno’s eponymous restaurant, and chef Bruno was the King of Truffles.

We had driven a little over an hour to get to Restaurant Bruno, nestled among the vineyards and olive trees just outside the village of Lorgues in Provence. Now we sat under an arbor of mulberry and olive trees on an outdoor terrace. I was famished and couldn’t wait to take my first bite of truffle. There it sat, on a plate in front of me, slivered and piled high on a golden round of toast drizzled with olive oil. I looked at my friends and grinned. Only Karine knew what to expect. My other two companions, Marc and Christine, were virgin truffle eaters like me.

“Bon appetit!” Karine smiles behind glasses reflecting the candle light.

“Bon appetit,” we giggle.

I take a gentle bite. I mince the amuse-bouche with my front teeth, then use my tongue to disperse the specks of flavor around my mouth. I close my eyes and swallow, drawn deeply into the earth after a summer rain.

“Alors, c’est bon?” Karine asks.

“Ahhh, oui,” I whisper and place the other half of the toast in my mouth. My insides swim. I take a sip of champagne and settle back into my chair. I’m ready.

On Karine’s advice, we all choose the set menu featuring the summer truffle, tuber aestivum, for 65 euros. Although more common and less expensive than its upper class relatives, she assures us that tuber aestivum will more than adequately initiate us to the truffle. Our menu is no different than the more expensive ones, except for the type of truffle. At Bruno’s, diners eat the same dishes, but pay more or less according to the truffle they choose. Tonight the more expensive menus feature tuber melanosporum, the famous black truffle that gourmands so covet, and tuber brumale, a winter truffle, less expensive and not as flavorful as its well-known cousin. According to Karine, one thing all diners can count on is getting their fill of truffles. Chef Bruno believes that truffles should not be a luxury item and uses them liberally in most dishes.

The first course arrives—truffle caviar served in a tin accompanied by a dish of fresh cream whipped into cumulus clouds and homemade blinis. Following Karine’s lead, I tear off a piece of blini and spread it thick with cream. I scoop out a dollop of caviar, press it into the middle of my creation and pop the blini into my mouth. I soar up from the earth and into the stratosphere. I repeat the process and fly higher. What did they put in those mushrooms?

I reach for my glass and sip the local red wine. Velvet dances across my taste buds. I sink to the earth again. Beads of sweat form across my lip. I sneak a peak at the other truffle newbies, gage their reactions. I watch emotions play tag across Christine’s face. She says nothing and takes another bite. She licks each of her fingers. Marc focuses on the task at hand: tearing, spreading, scooping.

“Oh, this cream. It’s so light,” Karine moans.

Cream, I think. Forget the cream. Give me more of that caviar.

Within minutes, it’s over. Marc grabs the tin, looks at each of us, and scrapes out the last few morsels of truffle with his index finger.

“Marc!” scolds Christine.

Marc grins and continues scraping. Christine and I look around. Nobody noticed. If Chef Bruno had been there, he probably would have laughed his approval.

“What’s next?” Marc asks, setting the tin back down on the table.

Plates with the butteriest potato ever known, smothered in truffle cream sauce with piles of truffle shavings, appear under our noses. This is Bruno’s signature dish— pommes de terre aux truffes— a recipe harkening back to a time when truffles were plentiful, a standard ingredient in country fare. I dig in. This time, I travel back in memory to my grandmother’s kitchen. Pies bake in the oven and I’m helping her mash fresh butter into boiled potatoes for Sunday dinner.

“That’s it!” I say to myself.

The thought slips away. I become aware of my empty plate. I focus on the conversation. We’re still talking about the food. Good. I haven’t missed anything. Now, what was that thought? Truffles. Time travel. Mommy Dee’s kitchen. Oh yes, remembers my rational brain. Truffles have the same effect as “comfort food”. They reach down into the psyche, striking a primal cord. People respond to them with their limbic brain.

“Ah, oui,” groans Marc, dispersing my thoughts. “Alors, ça c’était bon.”

“Monsieur, mesdames, le pigeon désosé dans sa croûte,” says the waiter, replacing our empty plates with the main course.

I attack the deboned pigeon wrapped around foie gras and truffles, baked in puff pasty and drizzled with satin sauce. I forget I’ve just eaten two previous courses. I lose track of time and place. I look up, eyes unfocused, knife and fork in hand, juice seeping from the corner of my mouth. I hear nothing, then the simmering voices of other diners. I blink and wipe my lips. It’s hot. Karine says something. My thoughts crowd each other. Christine’s fork and knife no longer move. Marc leans back beyond the candle light.

“We must save room for dessert,” Marc commands.

Surely, this is it. I can’t eat anymore, I think. But there is more. The waiter makes a mistake, and instead of one dessert, serves three—homemade ice-cream that tastes like my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie, peach ice-cream in a meringue basket topped with strawberries and champagne granita with truffles.

“Truffles for dessert,” I cry.

“Yes, truffles from start to finish!” exclaims Karine.

I recall my initial doubts about truffles. How could anyone eat fungus for dessert. Surely, Bruno’s had gone too far. I scrunch my nose, prepared for the worst, and spoon a bite. The champagne crystals melt on my tongue, snowflakes with vestiges of autumn, a perfect ending to the evening’s bounty. I stop questioning. I surrender. Some things should remain a mystery.

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