By Annette Hinkle
OK, it’s true — on their surface, they’re not all that appealing. But in fact, the elusive truffle is a culinary delicacy akin to a nugget of gold.
Truffles can’t be found in this country. Even in France and Italy where they thrive, it takes a serious forager with great skill, intricate knowledge of the terrain and a canine companion capable of sniffing them out in order to strike gold.
A funky smelling fungus in the genus Tuber, truffles grow wild near the roots of oak trees. They have yet to be successfully cultivated on a large scale (though Australia is doing well with the black variety), and the best in the world are white truffles from the Piedmont region of northern Italy.
And right now, they are in the prime of their season.
Luckily, there are two local eateries — 1770 House in East Hampton and Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton — offering truffle themed dinners in the coming days.
“Truffles have their own specific aroma. I’ve always been a lover of them,” admits Chef Michael Rozzi of 1770 House. “It’s the intrigue of the exotic and something not used every day — they’re expensive and a ‘luxury object.’”
Rozzi is putting together a four course truffle and wine dinner to be held Thursday at 1770 House and his dishes are designed to bring out the unique quality of truffles.
“Truffles are very strong and aromatic, but you could definitely overwhelm the delicate flavors with too much seasoning or too strong a dish,” explains Rozzi. “They don’t lend themselves to anything spicy or too acidic.”
While Rozzi uses black truffles for accenting meat dishes and braised foods, to take advantage of the delicate flavors of the white variety, he uses them in starch-based dishes like risotto, rice and pastas or even with delicate meats.
“Chefs have become more creative in what they serve them with and more daring in their combinations,” adds Rozzi. “It’s a matter of taste and you can over do it. The best this to do is never buy too much and use them as quickly as you can. Like any fresh produce, they are extremely perishable.”
But even when they’re gone, Rozzi still finds there are ways to work truffle magic into his cooking.
“There are some good natural products like truffle oils or canned truffle products and truffle butter,” he says, though he adds it may be scarcity that makes them so appealing.
“Like any luxury item, it wouldn’t be what it is if you could go down the street anytime and get them.”
Ty Kotz, the executive chef at Topping Rose House, understands that well. In advance of a six course white truffle dinner there on Saturday evening (which will be prepared by acclaimed chefs Tom Colicchio and Marco Canora with wine pairings by sommelier Paul Grieco) tomorrow, Kotz will buy 3.5 pounds of Piedmont white truffles from Urbani, a city-based purveyor who is sending a representative out to the East End with the finest selection of truffles currently available on the planet.
The average cost per pound for white truffles is $1,800 and like diamonds, size matters — which means the bigger ones sell for even more. Like precious jewels, Kotz notes that not long ago, buying truffles resembled a transaction worthy of the diamond district — or worse.
“It’s only recently in America where companies are reputable and getting good product,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, an Italian guy would show up at the back door of a restaurant with a suitcase full of white truffles. They’d be worth $10,000…. it was like a drug deal going down.”
But in this case, entirely legal and delicious.
“The white truffles are super aromatic, in peak you want to use them in something to show off their aromatic quality,” says Kotz who, like Rozzi, advocates simplicity. “A good way to do that is shave them over top a dish at the last second, what’s underneath sends up wafts of steam.”
“You don’t want something that’s going to fight the truffle,” he adds. “The whole point is to experience it. That’s why you shave it at table side, so you get all the flavor.”
Tom Colicchio and Marco Canora will be preparing a five course white truffle menu at Topping Rose that includes carne crudo, scallops, potato gnocchi, partridge and braised short ribs. Dessert will be a brioche bread pudding with truffle honey ice cream and all six courses will feature wine pairings by Paul Grieco, who has been named one of the best sommeliers in the country.
While Grieco has garnered a reputation for promoting off-beat vintages at his Terroir wine bars in New York, selections for Saturday’s truffle dinner will be strictly old school.
“When I worked at Gramercy Tavern, Tom Colicchio taught me a simple lesson about matching wine and food,” says Grieco. “‘If it grows together, it goes together.’”
“As high falutin’ as I might want to be with these matches, my modus operandi is why fight centuries of things that have worked together simply?”
For that reason, he is sticking with a selection of both white and red wines from the Piedmont region.
“It’s part and parcel of what Piedmont is,” he explains. “When you think of wine regions, it’s multi dimensional — food, drink, culture and people. In that region in the fall people are drinking those wines and eating those foods.
“It’s pretty fricking magical,” says Grieco. “We’re trying to replicate that in Bridgehampton.”
Grieco’s wine pairings will include Piedmont whites made from the Arneis varietal followed by a wine from the Timorasso grape, which Grieco describes as a “modern classic” varietal which existed long ago and was then brought back.
The next three courses will feature reds — a “triumvirate” as Grieco calls it of grapes including Dolcetto (which means “little sweet one”), Barbera (the workhorse Italian grape and maker of sturdy wines) and a Nebbiolo variety, which Grieco describes as the most important grape in the region (but not the most planted) which is used to make Barolo and Barbaresco.
“My wines will be very much of the earth with straightforward flavors to work with the truffles and all the components on the plate,” says Grieco who adds that dessert will feature a Moscato d’Asti, a sparkling white with an alcohol content of around 6 percent.
“It’s made from the Muscat grape which is rocketing up the charts in terms of popularity,” says Grieco. “On my first foray to Italy in the ‘80s I fell in love with it. It’s arguably the most delicious wine on planet earth. It’s not complex, not profound, not great. But it’s exactly what it is — fun, easy and immediately understandable.”
And that’s what pairing good find and wine is all about.
“The thing about matching wine and foods, you think if you have this unbelievable product of the earth that’s expensive with a unique taste, the wines have to be over the top and grand,” he says. “Invariably that’s not what you want to do. Simplicity rules. If you serve a grand wine, the food should be über simple and if the food takes the leading light, then the wine shouldn’t try to tap down the exuberance on the plate.”
“I’m not giving myself much of a challenge and that’s right and proper,” says Grieco. “More than enough people here are reining me in from my normal tendencies.”
The White Truffle Dinner (including wine pairings) at Topping Rose House (2546 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton) on Saturday, November 16, 2013 is $395 and includes mingling around the “Barn” after dinner with Tom, Marco and Paul. The dinner is part of a full White Truffle Weekend (November 16 and 17) at the inn. Call 537-0870 for details.
The Italian Wine and Truffle Dinner at 1770 House (143 Main Street, East Hampton) is $225 and begins at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 14, 2013. Call 324-1770 or visit 1770house.com for details.