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On November 14th The Napasai by Orient- Express will be celebrating Truffles with their event’ When 5 Chefs Play with Black Diamonds’.
Chef Gilles from the Napasai has a passion for truffles and last year held the event with Chef Wally, Chef Sebastien, Chef Aziz and the General Manager of the Napasai. The evening was a great success and this year’s event promises to be just as exciting with dishes from Chef Gilles of the Napasai, Chef Konrad from the Conrad Koh Samui, Chef Sebastian from the Red Snapper, Chef Azizs from The Scent and Peace Resort and Chef Luke of the InterContinental.
Truffles have found their way onto the plates of the most exclusive restaurants around the world, but what are they? Where do they come from? Why are they so expensive? And what has turned this odd little fungus into a commodity that is in huge demand by the best chefs, if often stolen, is sold on the black market and traded in a way you would imagine drugs to change hands by organized crime gangs?
A truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean Ascomycete fungus, predominantly one of the many species of the genus Tubor. In very basic terms, a fungus that grows around the roots of specific trees. Truffles are round, warty and irregular in shape. Their size ranges from that of a walnut to the size of a man’s fist.
The most esteemed truffle is the ‘white truffle’ or ‘trifola d’Alba”. It comes from the Langhe and Montferrat area of the Piedmont region in northern Italy and most famously in the countryside around the city of Alba.
The white truffle grows symbiotically with oak, hazel and beech and can reach 12cm in diameter, although they are usually much smaller. The flesh is pale cream or brown with white marbling. White truffles are only available between October and November and this is when the Fiera del Tartufo (truffle fair) takes place. In 2001 white truffles sold for between 1000 and 2200 US$ per pound, by December 2009 they were being sold at 14, 204 US$ per kilogram. The record for the highest price paid for a single white truffle was set in December 2007 when Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid 330,000 US$ for a truffle that weighed 1.5 kilograms that was discovered by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco. That record was match on November 2010 when Ho again paid 330,000 US$ for a pair of white truffles, one of which weighed nearly 1 kilogram.
The black truffle or black Perigord truffle, (Tuber melanosprum) is the second most commercially valued species and is named after the Perigord region in France. It grows with oak and hazelnut trees.
Finding truffles is no easy task and is usually achieved on open ground with the help of specially trained dogs or pigs. The Lagotto Romagnolo is the traditional breed of dog used to sniff for truffles, but virtually any bread can be trained for this purpose.
The female pig’s natural truffle seeking skills are renowned. Her talent arrives from the compound within the truffle smelling similar to androstenol, the sex pheromone of boar saliva, to which the sow is keenly attracted. In Italy the use of pigs to hunt for truffles has been prohibited since 1985 due to damage cause to the truffle as the pig digs it out. On a far more practical level, the use of pigs has dwindled due to the fact that more often or not the pig eats the truffle it has found. Unlike pigs, that have an innate ability to sniff out truffles, dogs must be trained, however they are far easier to control and do not have a tendency to consume this very valuable commodity on its discovery.
It takes about seven years for the first truffles to begin to grow around the roots of truffle bearing trees, and this means it is necessary to regularly replenish the population of the tress. In order to enjoy the flavor of the truffle is it also essential not to harvest too early.
The taste of truffles rapidly decreases with time so to enjoy the wonderfulness of the variously described pleasures of dining on truffles you must eat them while they are still fresh after harvest.
So what does a truffle smell like? One person described a white truffle as smelling like a combination of musk, nuts and ozone. Another described a black truffle as smelling like a freshly opened can of creamed corn.
Because of the high price of truffles, not to mention their pungent taste, they are used sparingly in cuisine. Top chefs adore the unadulterated fresh product that is generally served raw and shaved over pasta, salads or fried eggs. White or black paper thin truffle slice are sometimes inserted into meats, or under the skin of birds and are sometimes used on pates, in stuffing and even in some specialty cheeses.
Historically chefs used to peel truffles, today many brush the truffle carefully and shave it or dice it with the skin on, to make full use of this valuable ingredient.
As fresh truffles are only available for a few months of the year, truffle oil is often used as a substitute when the fresh item is not available. However brands of truffle oil must be chosen carefully as some do not contain truffles, but have been artificially favored using synthetic agents.
It is not surprising, being the most expensive food in the world, that truffles have become part of the crime scene. Just a couple of shavings of black truffles from France, known as black diamonds, can cost hundreds of dollars in a restaurant in Paris and white truffles from Italy can cost three times that amount.
In France, the truffle is so revered that in the village of Uzes, a special mass is held in its honor. Churchgoers not only put money in the collection plate, they also add truffles. There’s a reason for the special prayers: Because of climate change, the harvests are down from an annual haul of 2,000 tons of truffles 100 years ago, to just 30 tons today.
Truffles are fancy, delicious, a delicacy and some say even and aphrodisiac. If you go to France or Italy you will soon learn that truffles are under siege, and that is because they are becoming scarce and this has lead to them being trafficked like drugs, stolen by thugs and as inferior truffles being imported from China, are often used to water down the superior European versions and then fraudulently sold, almost in the same way that drug traffickers cut their drugs with other substances.
One of Europe’s most famous truffle connoisseurs is the larger-than-life French chef and restaurateur known simply as Bruno. At Bruno’s restaurant, in the heart of Provence, wealthy Europeans helicopter in from Paris and Monaco, just to eat lunch. Bruno goes through about 5 tons of truffles a year, which his chefs shave on everything from potatoes to an amazing lobster dish.
In 2012 the CBS news program 60 minutes investigated the truffle industry and spoke to Bruno at his restaurant. When he was asked if the Truffle trade resembled the mafia he said yes, that is exactly what it is like, it is very dangerous, it is very dangerous for me to talk. Bruno himself had 200 kilos of truffles stolen from his stash. Some of the stolen truffles, they were told, were taken to markets such s the one in Richerenches where middle men sell out of the backs of cars or trucks. Although large quantities change hands in back alleys.
CBS witnessed transactions where the buyers and sellers wanted their identities hidden. In less than a minute, 50 pounds of truffles were exchanged for 30,000 Euros – about US $40,000 – with no questions asked about where the truffles came from.
Michael Tournayre, a third generation truffle farmer said “There’s a problem of confidentiality and secrecy. And that encourages a Mafia-like attitude. Local trufflers have been car-jacked, beaten with baseball bats and even killed”
Michael Tournayre has experienced this first hand, thieves came and stole his truffles, his trees and worse, his dogs who he looked for all over Europe but never found them.
Although technically it is possible to cultivate truffles, this method has only enjoyed limited success. Countries such as the USA have tried this method, but it is the European red soil and rainy summers that produce an especially rich and earthy flavor.
In the 2012 program Lesley Stahl caught up with Olga Urbani, possibly the only person in the world that goes truffle hunting in a full-length fur coat and a Caribbean tan. She is part of the Urbani Tarufi family based in Spoleto Italy, who control about three quarters of the truffle trade. He joined Olga on a truffle hunt and as she pulled out a truffle he asked, “so right here, just like that you have found something worth US $1,000 is that right?” The answer was a resounding yes. Of course she would never have found the truffle without her dog, and one famer, also on the hunt, commented, “I really love my wife… but my dog….”
When the truffles have been collected they go directly to the Urbani factory where they are washed and sorted and either frozen or canned before being flown to fancy restaurants such as New York’s DB Bistro Moderne, home of the $150 hamburger that is smothered in truffles.
Olga explained that truffles are a fungus and producing high quality produce is not something a farmer can really make happen. Being so rare she went on to say that she spends most of her time on the phone saying sorry I don’t have the amount you require and she wishes she had one hundred tons a day to keep everybody happy.
Thankfully no such skullduggery or hunting for truffles with a dog or a pig will be required on Thursday for the truffle extravaganza at the Napasai by Orient Express. Chef Gilles good friend Antoine Khoury, who owns the company L’Arbre a Truffe in Vence, personally flew in the truffles to be used the night and will be giving a talk about truffles as the guests enjoy some of the most exclusive and expensive ingredients the world has to offer and you can join them.
There is still time to book table for what promises to be an unforgettable night so if you would like to enjoy something really special feast your eyes over the information below and book your spot.