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There are only a few ways to enjoy white truffles. Fine egg pasta, such as thin ribbons of taglierini (known as tajarin in Piedmont), or tagliatelle tossed in butter and covered in truffle is excellent, as is a good risotto or most ways of cooking eggs. Perhaps the best truffle dish I have had, however, was a little cardoon and custard tartlet festooned with truffle and sitting on a bed of fonduta (fontina, milk and egg yolks heated into a cream).
Wherever you go in Piedmont in the truffle season you will see any number of dishes but the recurring theme is fonduta. I was once lucky enough to be invited to enjoy the cooking of a lady called Giovanna in the former hunting lodge of King Victor Emmanuel II at the Fontanafredda wine estate. The first dish she gave us, carne cruda, was prepared by rubbing a chopping board very lightly with a clove of garlic and then chopping a perfectly cleaned (ie free of all sinew and fat) piece of veal rump to a fine mince, seasoning it lightly, adding a few drops of olive oil and then showering it with white truffle.
This was a very fine dish. The next course was my first experience of fonduta. It is a simple, smooth yellow porridge of cheese, milk and eggs. Without any jarring edges, it is deeply savoury, its gentle heat the perfect vehicle to release the aroma of the truffles that sit on top of it. I subsequently have had fonduta several times but none has surpassed the quality of the ambrosia that Giovanna cooked for us that day.
The fact is that it is dangerous to wander off piste with white truffles. Contrasting, intrusive flavours will only mute the flavour of the fungus. Heat is necessary properly to exploit the aroma and yet white truffles should never be cooked. They need simple, savoury flavours to enhance their unique quality: in this they are totally different from black truffles, which actively enhance the flavour of other ingredients.
One other rule with white truffles is to judge them on their merits and to take their claimed provenance with a pinch of salt. Many of the truffles that are purported to come from Alba and Piedmont actually originate in Umbria and Marche; many of the truffles that supposedly come from Italy come from eastern Europe. It does not really matter. What matters is that the truffles are dry on the outside and slightly moist within, that they are totally firm and, above all, that each and every one, smelt separately, gives off a rich and powerful aroma. The ones photographed happen to be Hungarian. They were not cheap: on the contrary, they were reassuringly expensive. But worth it once a year.
Rowley’s drinking choice
In Piedmont, one is most likely to be served red with white truffles. Not usually the great Barolos or Barbarescos but the slightly lighter Dolcettos and Barberas. The first has rich, chocolatey fruit supported by aggressive tannins, the second has high acidity and sweet red berry fruit with lesser tannin. They both seem to adore truffle so local knowledge is worth adhering to.
The fecule or cornflour is a cheat but it works. In the absence of a truffle shaver, a sharp Japanese mandolin will do very well. In the absence of a mandolin, a fine grater will manage. A knife simply won’t work. Recipe for six.
225g fontina cheese
125ml double cream
2 dsp milk
4 egg yolks
1 tsp fecule or cornflour
50g-100g white truffle
● Grate the cheese on the coarse mesh of the grater and place in a bowl with the combined milk and cream. Leave to soak for one hour.
● Melt the butter in a small, preferably Teflon, saucepan and add the cheese-milk-cream mixture, spoonful by spoonful on a steady heat, waiting until the cheese has melted before adding the next. Combine the two dessertspoons of milk with the egg yolks and fecule and mix to a smooth paste. Add two spoonfuls of the hot cheese mixture to this paste and then pour it back into the mixture in the saucepan. Stir together really well and continue to cook until the mixture thickens to a porridge-like consistency. Season if necessary with a pinch of salt.
● Pour the mixture on to six plates, take to the table and then shave the truffles as finely as you possibly can over each plate. It should be possible to eat the fonduta only with a fork.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais