Sometimes it just has to be something decadent. Something wicked. Something rare or unusual. Something out of the ordinary. Something you would never have every day.
Truffles, for me at least, fit this bill. Their extraordinary simultaneous earthy and heady tones conjure something within me difficult to put into words. The fact that they are only available at certain times of the year makes them all the wondrous when at last they arrive. Shaved generously on an olive oil doused Burratta, scattered upon a creamy risotto, thrown with abandon atop a crushed butterbean bruschetta, a Parmesan Custard, an utterly unnecessary addition to Gratin Dauphinoise…to hell with it…Macaroni Cheese!
I go through phases of being utterly beholden to the imaginings of combinations of ingredients both new and classic that could be bettered by the addition of this gnarled nugget of heaven. The truth is that nothing can better a hot sourdough crusty baguette with cold hard English salty butter. But just occasionally, should that butter be pounded with the remnants of a finely chopped black Perigord Truffle, it can transport the humble flute l’Ancienne to a meal fit for a King…or me.
Paper thin shavings of fresh truffles would have easily sated my most recent cravings, but the fresh variety is unavailable thanks to my current location (Singapore) and the fact that it is out of season anywhere in the world that I would chose to/have the ability to eat it. Though not for long. My cravings (and absurd kindness of my husband) have spurned me to book tickets to Australia for the end of the month to go out on a truffle hunting adventure with a fellow hopeless female foodie romantic. My pilgrimage will take me to one of the best restaurants in the world, at a time when these ugly walnut sized chunks of edible black gold (Even Brillat-Savarin¹ referred to them as diamonds from the dirt) appear near that side of the earth’s surface, harvested by equally ugly yet rather alarmingly charming hogs. It will arrive at my table in the guise of 11 different dishes and served with fanfare appropriate to a menu degustation devoted to the stuff. Heaven!
Though Australia has in fact only been cultivating and/or harvesting these beauties commercially for about twelve years, their quality is undeniable, and though not as pungent as the winter Perigord or delicate as the Italian Summer Truffle, for black truffles they ain’t bad…and they are just about within my reach!
For today, however, my yearnings have had to be sated by a paste. I am not a food snob. When you are desperate you just have to bend the rules. Whilst ‘make do and mend’ seems an inappropriate phrase to call to mind when referring to the use of one of the most expensive ingredients in the world, I was hardly stooping to the use of anything inferior. In fact, in many ways, the truffle paste sent to me by my dear friend Sarah from London is a singularly superior and highly coveted item in my larder. When not slathering the stuff on crusty bread under cover of darkness for fear of being told that it is a waste, I try to dream up appropriate accompaniments…suitable for sharing.
This is one of my all-time favourites.
WHITE ONION AND TRUFFLE SOUP
Serves 1 very happily, 2 nicely, 3 if necessary, 4 as a starter.
Like all of my favourite recipes, its beauty lies in its simplicity. There are only six ingredients. Three of them are salt, pepper and water, the first two of which are often unnecessary.
4 large brown skinned, white onions
1 pint of water, use decent still spring water if you can (I promise not snobbery…Patricia Michelson taught me the merits…just try it)
1 pint of whole milk
A pinch of salt and pepper if needed
Truffle Paste (watch out for pastes beefed out with mushrooms), or shavings of fresh truffle if you can lay your hands on it!
Peel and roughly chop the onions. Place in a heavy pan and cover with the milk and water. Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes, watching all the time to ensure it doesn’t catch or boil over. When the onion is translucent and utterly soft, and the milk is frothy and bubbling, turn off the heat and blitz with a bamix or immersion blender to create a velvety soup resembling heavy pouring cream. Add salt and pepper only if needed. Spoon into a bowl and smear a generous helping of truffle paste across the surface (let the paste down with a little milk if too solid). Eat immediately with warm crusty bread and, of course, a lump of cold, hard, salty butter. Also pretty damned good chilled if you strangely end up with leftovers.
¹A genuine food hero in my book; Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1755-1826, Paris. A French lawyer and politician, he was better known as an epicure and gastronome and wrote extensively on food; the art of eating and hosting, and is roundly billed as the father of the gastronomic essay. He also expounded the virtues of proteins and the deficits of sugars and carbohydrates, predating Atkins by a couple of centuries. His most famous quotes include “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are”. His famous work Physiologie du goût (the physiology of taste) has never been out of print since the day it was first published in 1825, two months before his death. He is also the only foodie I know of to have a divine cheese, a shape of mould and a style of dessert named after him!