In front of me sit a dozen plastic bags, some open, some sealed, all containing what on first sight look like small lumps of coal. They look underwhelming, but it’s impossible to be underwhelmed for more than a moment, because of the smell. Within seconds, everyone in a 30-foot radius knows that we’re dealing with the ultimate luxury cooking ingredient: black truffles.
The smell of black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, is mushroomy, of course. But to liken the aroma to mushrooms is to liken platinum to tin foil. The smell of black truffle is earthy, farmyardy, with a top note of petrol. That doesn’t sound like a terribly appealing combination, but it is.
I am standing in the office of John Williams MBE, executive chef of the Ritz, ready to learn about all things truffle. Williams is deeply passionate about the subject, and particularly about the black truffles that currently sit between us. (The Ritz, he believes, buys in and serves more truffles each year than any other restaurant in the UK.) He is also forthright on what we get wrong about them.
Truffles command a famously high price. The exact number depends on the overall success of the growing season and the point within it, but black truffles range from about £580 to £850 per kilo. White truffles are even more expensive – up to £3,500 a kilo – but their culinary uses are far more limited: if you cook with them, they lose their aroma, so they are only shaved, fresh, onto finished dishes, whereas black truffles will retain, and even deepen and change their aroma, when cooked.
The first truffles of the season come into the Ritz’s kitchen in December. Some are reserved for shaving fresh; others are blast frozen for cooking later in the year; still others are immediately cooked into sauces. No part is wasted. Truffles need to be peeled, but the peel is put into a marinade of madeira, port and brandy, which will become an uncommonly punchy, luxurious sauce.
We try one of the Ritz’ celebrated truffle dishes: a whole salt-baked celeriac carved in front of us, with the aforementioned boozy sauce spooned on top (and some shavings of fresh truffle to boot). The celeriac’s mild flavour gives the truffle plenty of room to show off, as it were; the dish is absurdly simple, but sings with flavour. Williams likes to use truffles in sweet dishes, too: crème brûlée and ice cream are particularly popular.
For many years, it was only grand hotels and big-name restaurants that used truffles, but times have changed. Restaurants across the country now boast truffles on their menu. But as Williams is keen to point out, not all truffles are created equal. Summer truffle, Tuber aestivum, is the one you’re likely to find in your neighbourhood restaurant, partly because it’s significantly cheaper and more plentiful, and also because it’s native to the UK, and so ‘local’.
Surely that’s a good thing? Not as far as Williams is concerned. Summer truffles don’t have the same depth of flavour, or anything like it, but still tend to command hefty price-points in restaurants. In other words: consumers are being conned. “It just cheapens the whole thing,” he explains. ‘If you enjoy [summer truffles], great, but only if you’re not being hoodwinked by the restaurant.”
But worse than the summer truffle is the ubiquitous truffle oil, sold in delis and used to jazz up the humble chip in posh pubs across the country. (I decide not to mention, as Williams rails against it, that I have at least one bottle on my shelf at home.) ‘Real’ truffle oil has a shelf-life of a week or two before it loses its aroma; the truffle oil you buy in the shops uses lab-made 2,4-dithiapentane, one of the aromatics that gives truffles their aroma. Truffle oil is to real truffles what foam banana pick ‘n’ mix are to the stuff in your fruit bowl. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy it – I’m as partial to a foam banana as the next person – but it’s a long way from the real thing.
Truffles are particularly susceptible to food fraud, partly because each truffle has such high value, and partly because at first blush, cheaper projects look identical to the real thing, and it can be hard to detect the imposter when it is surrounded by the highly aromatic real article.
An obvious solution to all this would be to grow more (black) truffles. Unfortunately, truffle growing is a tricky business. Trees injected with the correct truffle spores must be planted in an area with the perfect acidity and moisture levels in the soil, as well as the correct nearby symbionts. If you’re lucky, the first truffles can be harvested in four to ten years. The majority of black truffles are cultivated in France, Spain, Italy, Australia and Croatia. The Duke of Edinburgh has spent the last 12 years in pursuit of the black truffle, announcing in December 2018 that he had successfully cultivated black truffles at Sandringham, making him the first person in the UK to manage it, but remaining tight-lipped as to how big his haul was.
So what do you, a non-Ritz chef, do if you find yourself in possession of a single, perfect black truffle? How to make the most of that expensive, powerful fungus? Thankfully, Williams tells me that the answer is to keep it simple: an omelette or scrambled eggs are a fantastic vehicle for the strong flavours of the fungus. Risottos or plain pasta dishes also work well. To that end, here’s the recipe for the Ritz’s simple but impressive truffled eggs.
The Ritz Truffle Hunters’ Breakfast
Serves 4 people
8 Fresh Free Range Eggs
1 Fresh Truffle (Tuber melansporum, 50–60g, cleaned)
100g Unsalted Butter
20ml Double Cream
20g Unsalted Butter
- Clean the truffles, using a soft brush. Place the truffles and eggs into a sealed airtight container overnight and the truffles will pass some of the aroma through the shell as they are porous.
- Crack the eggs into a bowl and blend with a whisk or a fork, and season with salt and pepper. Dice ⅔ of the truffle.
- Melt the butter in a pan until it just starts to froth, do not allow the butter to brown. Add the diced truffles mixing vigorously with a wooden spoon for a maximum of 1 minute, ensuring you do not fry the truffle. Reduce the heat and stir in the eggs and cook the mixture very gently with the wooden spoon until creamy curds are formed. Remove from the heat and finish by mixing the 20g of diced butter. Add the cream and immediately incorporate.
- Spoon the eggs onto a plate, slice the remaining truffle very thinly on a mandolin into as many slices as possible. Serve with a good baguette or toasted sourdough bread.