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Piedmont, Molise and London: On the White Truffle Trail

Piedmont, Molise and London: On the White Truffle Trail
Have you ever had your flight disturbed by a neighbouring passenger with a very distinctive body odour?  Not pleasant unless it’s the unmistakable earthy, sensuous aroma of truffle and you are sitting next to Mary de Gregorio on a flight from Rome or Naples with her trusted and very inconspicuous black canvas bag.  
 
Actually, you’re more likely to encounter Mary and her intoxicating bag on the London Underground on her round of chef’s visits , as these days her white diamonds aka truffles usually travel alone by DHL, it’s more above board and the truffles – kept chilled arrive in fitter state.  Few people appreciate that the average life of a truffle with true efficacy is only 3-4 days, so speed is of the essence.
 
Mary’s casually insouciant style – she literally just tipped the bag of white truffles out on to the table in the bar at 7 Park Place for chef William Drabble and myself to feast our eyes on - belies the major operation she runs with her two brothers.   Based in Molise - Italy’s newest region, only recognised as separate from Abruzzo in 1960s - Mary and her two brothers Gino and Antonio run an international truffle business supplying weekly visits door to door to chefs in New York, LA and Vegas as well as London.
 
William Drabble knows exactly what he’s after as he sniffs and selects with practised astuteness.  Putting aside half a dozen earth-covered “vegetable diamonds” resembling mis-shaped stones.  “It’s all to do with the aroma, some are pungent than others and with white truffles much of the sensation is in the intoxicating aromas the diner inhales.  I’m also looking out for truffles without any damage, little holes made by snails may mean a maggot has also been inside the truffle, but the dog’s paw marks are
Piedmont, Molise and London: On the White Truffle Trail
fine.”
 
Drabble teases and probes Mary as to where he is in the pecking order of her truffle stops.  “The earlier in the day, the appointment the better choice you get, naturally.”  Mary will only reveal she may already have been to Zafferano and The Ivy before going uncharacteristically coy about whom her other customers are.
 
The actual negotiating goes on downstairs in the kitchen with the truffles weighed on electronic scales with utmost precision.  The price can vary weekly depending on weather conditions, quality, supply & demand.
Truffles are essentially mushrooms that grow underground in association with certain types of trees - mainly oak, beech and hazelnut. Their growth beneath the earth's surface is thought to be an adaptation to forest fires, drought, or severe cold, which leaves mushrooms above the soil surface prone to destruction. They only develop when conditions are right such as the acidity of the ground, and the right kind of vegetation, temperature and rainfall (too much and the season is dismal.)
 
Curiously, it’s believed the truffle developed its very powerful aroma in order to propagate - it is very attractive to animals such as squirrels which dig them up for food and then go on to disseminate the spores. And, of course to trained dogs who’ve long been indispensable in finding truffles.   A fully trained truffle seeking dog would cost E3,000- 5,000 but most finders would buy a puppy for around E500 and train them up.
 
But as demand for truffles shoots up, inevitably the “finders” in this secretive art as Mary refers to them are getting more competitive, resorting to cloack and dagger skulduggery and even poisoning competitors highly trained dogs.  Even in years when conditions are quite perfect – white truffles need damp, well aerated soil - only very small quantities are unearthed in the September through to December gathering season. It is this rarity that accounts for the high prices white truffles command: fetching well over £1500 a kilo this year.
At Seven Park Place, however, William Drabble’s white truffle menu is a relatively reasonable .  “I don’t believe in making huge margins on this – many places would charge a £30 premium for a 10g white truffle shaving – I just want to celebrate one of the most delectable extreme seasonal delicacies  I look forward to cooking with every year.”
 
Among Drabble’s wonderfully decadent offerings are foie gras with truffles.  As Drabble explains: “the fat takes on the truffle flavour and holds the aroma fantastically.”  Keeping white truffle with eggs is a classic way of making the truffle go further.  As Drabble elaborates: “the shell of the egg is porous and the egg yolk is 80% fat which makes it an excellent carrier of the truffle flavour.   Truffle butter elevates sweet, rich lobster lobster tail to an exceptional treat served with roast cauliflower.  But my favourite of all is Drabble’s seared scallops with Jerusalem artichoke puree, aged balsamic and white truffle. Outrageously good.
 
Six courses £95
Accompanying wines to match £55.
 
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11 December 2010
By: Sudi Pigott
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