All dressed up to buy small but pricey truffle

April 19, 2006|By ROB KASPER

I got dressed up for my rendezvous with a fresh truffle. Because I was going to spend time in the company of an upper-class underground fungus, one that costs $999.99 a pound, I did not want to look shabby. So, wearing my best sports coat, freshly pressed slacks and newly shined shoes, I headed out to Wegmans in Hunt Valley.

Truffles have been around for centuries but are now, I am told, a trendy ingredient showing up in dishes at avant-garde restaurants.

They had not made any appearances at our house, and when I first spotted them it was not love at first sight. The truffles, kept under lock and key in a clear plastic box next to the lesser mushrooms in the produce department, did not look appealing. These winter truffles were black and about as big as my little finger. Nestled in a bed of white rice, they reminded me of big snails burrowing into the earth.

Underground, of course, is where these truffles had resided until they were uprooted - either by trained dogs or pigs. That is one reason truffles are so expensive. It is not every dog or pig that can sniff out a truffle from the roots of chestnut, oak, hazel and beech trees.

Other reasons for the big price tag are that truffles are rare and have a limited shelf life. Once you get a fresh truffle in your possession, you have about three days to enjoy it at its peak, Kenneth McClary, the produce manager who watches over the truffles at Wegmans, told me later. Truffles range in price from $50 to $2,000 a pound, he said.

The truffles have attracted a steady, if not spectacular, following since the store began selling them last fall, he said. "Some fellow, I think he is a chef, buys $600 worth," McClary said. Other customers, he said, buy the fabled tuber in smaller packages.

I was definitely thinking of a small - maybe even minuscule - purchase.

Never having bought anything that cost $999.99 a pound, I tried to act nonchalant. Straightening my sports coat I summoned a clerk in the produce department, the way I might summon a sommelier at a fine restaurant.

When the clerk heard I was there for the truffles, he produced a key and donned gloves. The key opened the truffle lock box. The gloves were necessary, I was told, because the truffles are sensitive. Once touched, they start getting mushy.

Feeling like a guy who was looking for the cheapest wine on a leather-clad wine list, I eyed the truffles, looking for the smallest one.

"I want one that weighs about 1 ounce," I said.

Sure, the clerk said. I was pleased to discover that this keeper of the truffles was upbeat, not snooty.

I held my breath as he put the truffle on an electronic scale that would figure out how much this indulgence would cost. When I saw the $10 figure, I breathed a sigh of relief. That was more money than I was accustomed to spending in the produce aisle, but it was my level of luxury.

I nodded my assent to the purchase the way a bidder at a highfalutin art auction does (or at least the way the bidder does it in movies about highfalutin art auctions).

As the truffle and its keeper disappeared into the nether reaches of the produce department so that my prize could be wrapped, I discovered another facet of the truffle-buying experience: groupies.

A cluster of young women approached me and politely asked why anyone would pay $999.99 a pound for something so ugly. I launched into a soliloquy about the pigs, the unique truffle aroma, its storied musky flavor. I turned to point to the truffles, but when I turned back around, the groupies were gone. So much for the truffles' legendary amorous powers.

As soon as I got my truffle home, I put it in an airtight container with two eggs and let them sit undisturbed for two days, allowing the truffle's mythic flavor to permeate the eggshell.

That is what Michel Roux instructed in a recipe in his new cookbook, Eggs. Roux's Waterside Inn in Bray, England, has held three Michelin stars for 21 years. I met him three years ago when he gave a cooking demonstration at the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va. Roux, I felt, kept regular company with truffles.

Following Roux's instructions, I coated the interior of two ramekins with grated Emmental cheese. Next I filled the ramekins with a truffle-flavored cream sauce. Then I cracked open the truffle-scented eggs and eased them into the ramekins. I worked carefully, feeling that I was in the presence of royalty. Finally, I placed the ramekins in a water bath and cooked them quickly in a 325-degree oven.

And so on an otherwise mundane Sunday morning, truffles came to our kitchen table. The creamy eggs were magnificent, laced with the distinct sensuous notes of the mysterious mushroom, one that over the centuries has supposedly charmed the likes of Lucrezia Borgia, Catherine de Medici and Napoleon. Not my usual crowd, but then again, every once in a while it is fun to live the truffled life.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

Truffled eggs en cocotte

Serves 2

2 eggs

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