(Creamy rice with confit duck and truffles)
In the last post I was taking a fanciful look back to a glorious summer, this post unfortunately returns us to the cold winter months. Although I much prefer the warmth of summer, winter is an opportunity to clean the allotment, prune the fruit trees and plan for the new year. It is also the best time to go truffle hunting!
A couple of years ago now I was fortunate to be invited to Teruel, one of the three provinces in the region of Aragón and famous for its truffles. Actually, perhaps I should say not famous for its truffles, as although one quarter of the world’s black truffles come from Spain, few people are aware of its importance in the international truffle market. The weekend was a complete immersion in truffles and based at a hotel called “La Trufa Negra” that can be found at http://www.latrufanegra.com/en/.
The weekend consisted of a session to teach us all about truffles, a special truffle menu in the hotel restaurant and a morning of truffle hunting at the hotel’s truffle farm. It should also be noted that the hotel itself is in a town called Mora de Rubielos, and anyone visiting the area should set time aside to visit this historic town.
So, just which truffles should we be buying and how should we be using them?
There are many truffle species, over forty in fact, but only a few have any culinary value. The majority are edible but have little or no flavour. They are therefore very cheap and often used to increase the amount of truffles in products without increasing the cost! Beware, all that glisters is not gold! As always, one gets what one pays for, on the other hand only a small amount is actually used on any one dish.
As far as buying finished products that contain truffles, not all countries have guidelines about the labelling of truffle products. In France for example a truffle product needs to have at least three percent of truffles added. The percentage is just one aspect though, it is the actual truffle itself that counts. A reputable producer will state what percentage of truffle the product contains and which is the actual truffle. Look for the latin name as the “common” name can hide the true truffle. Here are the truffles to look out for, and those to avoid!
One of the key truffles to look out for is the Tuber Melanosporum, known as the Black Truffle. These truffles are only available from November to March and stay fresh for a maximum of two weeks. These are the ones we went hunting for and ate in abundance in the restaurant in the hotel.
The Tuber Aestivum, as its name suggests is a summer truffle found in Spain. Although not as good as the winter black truffle mentioned above, it is still well worth trying.
Both of the above are now available as farmed truffles. Nevertheless they are still expensive and can fetch up to a thousand pounds a kilogramme. I paid one euro a gramme for mine, but most recipes only use a gramme or two of truffle so it doesn’t work out that expensive.
The most expensive truffle is an Italian one that they have been unable to farm so far. This it the Tuber Magnatum and is around twice as expensive as the Spanish black truffle.
And lastly one to avoid, the Tuber Indicum. These truffles, produced primarily in China, are flooding the world’s markets and have no culinary value whatsoever. Truffles that are sold either unlabelled or with labelling so small it can’t be read, tend to be Tuber Indicum. Avoid them like the plague!
Truffles, even farmed truffles are expensive because of the high start-up costs and the time it takes to get a return on investment. The land needs to be prepared and the right trees planted. More importantly the roots of these trees need to be infected with the truffle spores to ensure that truffles develop on the roots. This is performed by only a few laboratories and therefore is expensive. The trees and the area around them needs to be irrigated, again we have the cost of the irrigation system and the creation of reservoirs to store the winter rainfall. Last, but not least, the fields need to be surrounded by strong fencing to keep out wild boars!
Truffles want to be eaten, that is the way they spread, via the digestive tracts of wild boar. When the truffles are ripe they emit an aroma that attracts wild boars. This is why pigs are often used to search out truffles, they have the same interest in truffles and are easier to train than wild boar!
Nowadays dogs are more often used. They are easier to train and far more easily transported from one truffle area to another.
Anyone who has read “A Year in Provence” or perhaps has seen the television series with John Thaw, will have seen that the world of truffles is a very secretive affair done in shady cafes and involving lots of unmarked plastic bags. I am told that this is in fact a realistic picture that is only now starting to change with the truffle farms. Truffle hunting relies on finding the best sites before the other hunters, so they like to sell what they find without other truffle hunters discovering just how many truffles they have found. If the other hunters thought that a colleague had found a good site they would follow him on his next outing. As many truffles now come from farms rather than the open mountainside, there is no issue around just how many truffles each farm is selling.
So, let’s get back to the food. We ate at the restaurant in the hotel, and what an experience it was. It has to be one of the best meals I have had anywhere! It was a set menu with a variety of fish and meats to try as well as salads and a pudding. Not only did all the dishes feature truffles, but in many cases the truffles were added by the waiter at the table which I thought was a nice touch.
I have enclosed a picture of just one of the dishes, but it is in many ways a good example. Basically it is egg and chips, but presented in a very originally (and tasty) way! The egg is on the right on a bed of fine chips. There is some delicious diced belly pork on the left and it is presented on a saffron emulsion. The egg is topped off with freshly grated truffle. It tasted every bit as good as it looks.
Quite often a simple dish, really well done, is far better than a more complex one. I really enjoyed the toast they did with truffle grated into the butter. So simple but the taste and aroma of the truffle really came out well. I must admit to using much of the truffles I bought simply mixed in with butter then spread over hot toast with a sprinkling of salt to finish it off!
Food aside for the moment, what I was really looking forward to was the truffle hunting itself. For those of you who want more information please try the following link:
There is also a video towards the bottom of the page, but be warned, it is in Spanish. It is still probably worth a watch.
The truffle hunting is done on the hotel’s own truffle farm, just a short drive up into the hills. We were shown how to hunt truffles using dogs by Alba, a guide from the hotel. We walked the fields whilst the dog sniffed for truffles. Alba then showed us how to dig the truffles up.
Once Alba had demonstrated the technique by digging up a few truffles, it was our turn to have a go. To be honest with you all, the dog was far more important in the process than we were! It never erred. It would scratch away when it detected a truffle and we would move forward and dig down. Not once did we fail to find a truffle once the dog had marked the spot.
So, I now know one truffle from another, I now know where they grow, how to hunt them and have even had some success at digging them up….. so what does one do with them??
As I have said earlier, a truffle will only last a couple of weeks tops. What I did is use them fresh for say ten days then store them in some way or other.
As I have mentioned above one of my favourite uses was to simply grate it into some soft butter with a touch of salt. Sometimes the simplest recipes are the best and the truffle butter on fresh toast was heavenly.
We then tried some of the recipes from their website. The following is one of my favourites, translated and slightly modified:
Arroz Cremoso de Trufa y Pato Confitado
Serves 2 people.
125g Round grain rice
500ml Duck stock (or chicken)
1 Duck leg in confit
10g Parmesan cheese
3 tbsp Cream
2g Truffle (Tuber Melanosporum)
Chop the onion and fry gently in a little oil. Do not add any salt. Add the rice and fry for a couple of minutes.
Start adding the stock little by little. Stir often so that the rice does not stick and so that the starch can start to come out of the rice.
Meanwhile remove the fat off the duck and flake the meat.
Once the rice is done, grate in the cheese.
Stir in the cream then the duck meat. Leave a couple of minutes for the duck meat to heat up to temperature.
Serve the rice and grate a little truffle onto each plate.
If you ever have the chance to visit the area, or especially if you live in Spain, I would recommend a truffle themed weekend. The hotel can organise everything for you and always has plenty of excellent dishes that extol the virtues of the area’s truffles. If you don’t fancy digging up truffles or you are hit with inclement weather, you can also spend a relaxing time in their spa.
And for the avoidance of doubt, I get no monies or indeed any perquisites from what I publish on this blog, so whatever I write is truly my own opinion and is no way influenced by outside forces!
As always, feel free to leave any comments……..
2016 Lincoln W. Betteridge