The Truffle-hunting Pig of Lalbenque | David Downie

The Truffle-hunting Pig of Lalbenque

By Thursday, March 31, 2011 Permalink

David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Four of Four: the Truffle-hunting Pig of Lalbenque

by David Downie

At Lalbenque, 10 kilometers southeast of Le Montat in southwest France, legendary truffle-hunter Marthe Delon awaited me with her spotted pig.

“This is Kiki the 59th,” Marthe laughed. “Every year I change pigs, they grow too big, but I always name them Kiki.”

Delon, a larger-than-life character now in her eighties, was famous for her truffle omelettes when she was the cook at Lalbenque’s Lion d’Or café, a job she held for 30 years. In her kitchen, she showed me how to store eggs and truffles side by side in a sealed container. “After a day or so the truffle penetrates the eggshell, and that’s the secret of great truffle omelette. The other secret is to put in lots of truffle—a good 10 grams per omelette.”

Before widespread spore-impregnation started in the 1980s, Delon said, she rarely found brumales. Truffle growers used “natural” propagation methods: host trees grew from acorns taken from known truffle-bearing oaks and were replanted in spore-rich areas, a continual process.

For Marthe, lack of summer rainstorms is the key to falling harvests. Dogs, too, may be part of the problem. “Everyone had pigs, you ate them afterwards, like my Kikis. No need to train them, they love truffles, but only ripe truffles, so they don’t dig up immature ones the way dogs do,” she said, pawing at the air. “How are immature truffles supposed to reproduce?”

A freezing wind blew down Lalbenque’s slanting main street as sellers set out wooden benches and wicker baskets for the town’s century-old Tuesday truffle market, held from early November to mid-March. Deals were being done quietly even before the whistle blew at precisely 2:30pm, officially opening the market. Wholesale buyers, chefs and individuals inspected the truffles, which are always sold by the panier (basketful), dickering with sellers for each panier then scribbling offers on paper strips. When a seller pocketed a paper strip it signaled a sale. After a ten-minute flurry of hands, baskets and paper strips the market was over. From parked cars wholesale buyers took out old-fashioned scales, checked the weight of their purchases and paid sellers.

Scrupulously noting the day’s 92 basketfuls, totaling 45 kilos, veteran French government agricultural statistics recorder Odet Bazalgues tipped back his cap as he spoke to me. “Down from a year ago,” he sighed, tapping his notebook. “Again.” Tons of truffles used to be traded weekly in Lalbenque, he remarked. “It’s still among France’s main markets. Wholesale prices for the rest of the country are set here.” The day’s top-quality truffles sold for 850 euros per kilo. “Good news?” Bazalgues ironized. “Fewer brumales this season.”

Two days later, at the Thursday truffle market in nearby Limogne-en-Quercy, I witnessed similar rites and an even lower melanosporum yield, and returned to Cahors with grave concerns about the future of truffles.

Housed within Cahors’ Hôtel Terminus, Le Balandre is a handsome, century-old restaurant; both are owned and operated by chef Gilles Marre, his brother Laurent, a sommelier, and their families. Cheerful and plump, Marre is celebrated for his truffle recipes. To start, he served me exquisite Belle Epoque-style poached eggs and foie gras in puff pastry with shaved truffles, the house specialty since before World War One. Next came a heady shepherd’s pie of leeks, potatoes, bacon and truffles. As I finished my meal with an extraordinary glace aux truffes that looked and even tasted like earthy chocolate chip ice cream, I gazed at the restaurant’s stained glass and polished brass and felt I was on the deck of a truffle Titanic.

Marre agreed with others I had spoken to that the French and Italian passion for truffles showed no signs of abating. “Scarcity is the prime worry,” he said.

Scarcity is likely to increase unless truffle plantations worldwide succeed. The truffle axis, it appears, may gradually shift from Italy and France to Spain, America, China and New Zealand, and more competitive, less flavorful truffle species may well prevail. What does the future hold for the black and white truffles of France and Italy? Current trends suggest that global consumers may actually come to prefer “milder” truffles such as Chinese indicum and their relatively low prices. European truffles appear destined to become ever more a rare delicacy reserved to the lucky few.

Related articles: David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Two, Truffle Hunting in PiedmontDavid Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest France.

The photos in this series of articles of truffles were taken by Alison Harris. You can see the entire set as a slide show in Food Art: Behind the Scenes of the Noble Truffle, food photography by Alison Harris.

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The Truffle-hunting Pig of Lalbenque | David Downie

David Downie and Alison Harris On Book Tour from April 20 to May 20 in NYC and SF Bay Area

By Thursday, March 31, 2011 Permalink

by David Downie

Food and travel writer David Downie and photographer Alison Harris are gearing up for their U.S. book tour, to beat the drum about their pair of newborn books: Quiet Corners of Rome and Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (April 25, 2011) and (April 5, 2011). The covers, if you please!

Details about the books, book tours and links to their favorite book sellers are listed on David’s site, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

Also featured on their tour and already available for purchase: Food Wine Burgundy, Food Wine Rome, Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa, and Cooking the Roman Way (the new e-book version).

What’s on the playbill? They’ll be showing slides (actually, Alison will do a PowerPoint presentation), talking, chatting, interacting via riveting Q&As, giving live radio interviews (most are still to be scheduled), and generally performing all the other tricks and great things writers and photographers do on book tours. Singing, dancing, walking tight ropes, jumping through hoops…

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Food Art: Mirabelle, Pear, by Meeta Khurana Wolff

By Thursday, March 31, 2011 Permalink

See more food photo compositions at Meeta K. Wolff.

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Simon Says: Daily Food Quote, March 31, 2011

By Thursday, March 31, 2011 Permalink

by Simón de Swaan

Gastronomy is the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment.–Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), in The Physiology of Taste (1825)

Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin was a French lawyer, magistrate and author who helped to develop the art of food writing. His most famous and influential book, The Physiology of Taste, consists of 8 volumes and was published in December of 1825, two months before his death at the age of 71. His influence is so significant that a cow’s milk cheese, a rum yeast cake, and a ring mold are all named after him.

The Rambling Epicure

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Destination Dessert: Far Breton aux Pruneaux, Baked Flan with Prunes from Brittany

By Thursday, March 31, 2011 Permalink

by Jamie Schler

Destination Dessert: Far Breton aux Pruneaux, Baked Flan with Prunes from Brittany

Wild, windy and awe-inspiring, Brittany is like nowhere else in her untamed beauty and her quaint villages, her fabulous seafood and her intriguing history; we stand perched atop the low cliffs, the wind whipping our hair, eyes squinting against the elements, and gaze in awe and wonder at the waves crashing onto the shore, battering the craggy heaps of rocks which form the uneven coastline. Gulls swirl overhead, dipping, diving and screeching at each other and us as they spot what could be food. Fishing boats in the distance bob on the choppy, midnight blue water amid the white-tipped peaks and our voices and laughter are snatched up and whisked out to sea. Only those born and raised in this part of the world, the true Bretons, dare strip down and dive in for a brisk swim in the chilly mid-summer as those less hardy huddle together, shivering, basking in the warmth of the occasional lull in the wind and ray of sunshine. The silence once back inside the car, the doors shut tight against the raging weather, is deafening. We drive back towards the beautiful port town of Le Conquet to meet the fishing boats as they come ashore at 5 o’clock every afternoon and wait impatiently as they display the catch of the day. Large, plump crabs and scoops of tiny bigorneaux are ours for the asking and we rush home to light the stove and make a festive meal of these simple treats.

Our Dessert Destination is Brittany, rugged and spectacular, proud of her heritage and culture. This is a region of hardy, good, generous people who still live a relatively simple, humble life. Ancient towns and even earlier remains, Brittany is a fascinating part of France, a land of legends and wondrous tales, the great northwest, that reaches back beyond Ancient Gaul, a rich history traced all the way back to Neolithic times. Celtic tribes ruled this country before Romans arrived, and both cultures have left their mark not only in the monuments and chateaux still found standing throughout the region, but in her music, language, arts and culture as well. Throughout their embattled, turbulent history, the tug-of-war between Britain and France, the back and forth of independence mixed with years of revolt and years of suppression, the Bretons have held tightly onto their culture, their language and their pride, and even today there still exists a separatist movement fighting for her independence.

We’ve spent many a holiday in Brittany and each time I wander over her landscape, I am awestruck by her savage beauty, the craggy landscape and the rustic towns. We’ve boated out to the tiny uninhabited isles out in the ocean waters and wandered the sandy coastlines. We’ve touched mysterious menhirs and dolmens scattered over this region, still standing, and listened to the moving, emotional chant of the bagpipes and harp or tapped our feet to the wild, joyous music of the violins and drums, the same music and spirit played, sung and danced to generation after generation, a constant flow of festivals, concerts and fairs keeping this dynamic culture alive. Brittany’s seafaring culture has given birth to and guided their commerce, crafts and music. And their cuisine.

The cuisine of Brittany is truly rustic and familial, hearty yet so simple. And, of course, one of the sea: crabs and lobsters, sea scallops, mussels, clams and of course oysters, are served simply, eaten raw, steamed or simmered in wine. The seafood platter or huge bowlfuls of steaming mussels cooked in wine are gastronomic standards. La Cotriade, a type of fish and seafood stew, is the perfect way to warm up a blustery winter day. Or how about kig-ha-farz, a type of pot-au-feu based on lard, pork and hearty, earthy vegetables like potatoes, onions, rutabagas, carrots and cabbage. Yes, Brittany pork is an appreciated local specialty and is often eaten in the form of Andouille de Guémené, Breton pork sausage. Or how about a classic galette, a savory crêpe made of local buckwheat flour, filled with almost anything you please but more often than not, something with a seafood or pork twist to it. And all of it washed down with cider, the favored drink of this region.

But while much of their cooking is rather simple, the desserts of this region are much more decadent and butter-rich. Most of us are familiar with the crêpe filled with cooked apples, jam or jelly or even caramel au beurre salé, salted butter caramel. But once you spend a bit of time in the region, you learn about the other traditional favorites like the Kouign Amann, a cake made of butter and sugar-infused bread dough covered with a fine layer of puff pastry. Once cooked, this treat becomes a meltingly sweet, dense, caramelized treat. And the Farz Buan, a quick dessert somewhere between a flan and a crêpe, or the palet, Brittany’s own butter cookie. And never forget that all desserts from this coastal region are made with salted butter!

Today’s dessert is one of Brittany’s secret gems, a delicious local specialty, Far Breton aux Pruneaux. Far Breton is a dense, oven-baked, custard-like flan only creamier, lighter than the one most of us are familiar with, and it is usually studded with sweet prunes macerated in rum. The first written mention of Far was in the 18th century when there was both a savory and a sweet version. Like the Breton crêpes, the savory version was made with local buckwheat flour and eaten as a side dish with meat, while the sweet Far was made with regular wheat flour. But while the savory version seems to have faded from the Breton culinary repertoire, the sweet dessert is still a much-loved mainstay.

All one needs to make a fabulous Far Breton is the best quality eggs, butter, salted of course, sugar, flour and whole milk along with prunes and a splash or two of rum. Preparing the batter is as easy as and similar to making batter for crêpes and while it is resting just toss a cup of prunes with rum and let the fruit macerate as you wait. Then just bake. Nothing is easier, nor can you find a tastier, homier dessert than the Far Breton!

My good friend Isabelle, Bretonne born and bred, offered me her own recipe for Far. But like all great French home cooks, my husband and his mother included, they cook “au pif”, by intuition, following their better instincts and feel rather than follow precise recipes or measurements. So I fiddled around with Isabelle’s recipe and second try was the charm! This recipe makes a perfect Far Breton, creamy and smooth and even chilled it never gets too firm or dense like a flan. And I added a bit more sugar than Isabelle because I thought my first try had no sweetness at all. With just one more tablespoon of sugar it is lightly sweet, yet nowhere near sugary. Just perfect! And the prunes? Well, what can I say? Gorgeous!

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The Truffle-hunting Pig of Lalbenque | David Downie

Food Poetry: The History of Brussels Sprouts

By Wednesday, March 30, 2011 Permalink

The History of Brussels Sprouts

This vegetable evolved from primitive

non-heading Mediterranean kraut.

It wrapped its crinkly little leaves about

its winsome, blooming face, and left to live

a classic Bildungsroman. Adjusting mien

and flavor, traveling north and west, it came

upon the gates of Brussels, took the name

that welcomed it. Gentlemen and lean

courtesans took into their mouths its tight

green jackets, endlessly disrobing, sheets

of luminosity pressed close. And fleets

dispatched to newer worlds carried wide

and far its seed. Like any immigrant,

it put down roots before it could repent.

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Simon Says: Daily Food Quote, March 30, 2011

By Wednesday, March 30, 2011 Permalink

by Simon de Swaan

Anybody can make you enjoy the first bite of a dish, but only a real chef can make you enjoy the last.–Francois Minot, Editor, Michelin restaurant guide

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Food Art: Tomato, Cinnamon, by Meeta Khurana Wolff

By Wednesday, March 30, 2011 Permalink

See more food photo compositions at Meeta K. Wolff.

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On The Chocolate Trail: Elizabeth Taylor Chocolate Notes

By Monday, March 28, 2011 Permalink

We wanted to share the comments and feedback we received about Christina Daub’s On the Chocolate Trail: The Elizabeth Taylor Special.

Alternative Recipe for Liz Taylor Special

A friend in Bethesda just asked about recipe for the Liz Taylor Special. All you do is place your favorite truffles artfully on your plate–and if you want to buy them, instead of make them, I suggest you get the Budapest truffles at Kron in DC and then cover them completely with whipped cream.

You might try sweetening the whipped cream with a splash of Grand Marnier and a sprinkling of sugar. This is an irresistible combination with the dark sumptuous truffles.

Alternative Recipe for a Chocolatini

Rim glass in cocoa powder or if you prefer sweeter, add some icing sugar to the cocoa first.

In a martini shaker, shake together one shot Smirnoff vanilla vodka and a shot of Godiva chocolate liquer over ice. Stir in 2 shots of cream and cocoa powder to taste. Shake quickly and strain into martini glass.

Alternative Recipe for a Chocolatini using vodka and Bailey’s Irish Creme

You can also use plain vodka and add Bailey’s Irish Creme to it and use creme de cacao instead of Godiva.

Garnish with dark chocolate shavings for some added pizazz.

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Food Art: Saffron Brioche, by Meeta Khurana Wolff

By Monday, March 28, 2011 Permalink

See more food photo compositions at Meeta K. Wolff.

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