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Baptized in Truffle Perfume

I’ve never been baptized before. And I never liked black truffle until recently. Yes, it’s true. I’ve written about food and wine without embracing truffles. My sense of smell bodes well for wine judging and sniffing out stale nuts and spoiled milk. But my nose has endured a few too many dreadful truffle encounters.


Truffle oil—even the expensive kind—has repulsed my nostrils. Stinky canned truffles have spoiled many a dinner. Sadly, truffles labeled “fresh” have arrived dry and boring.


Yet a miracle happened in the dining room at La Toque in Napa Valley this winter. Chef Ken Frank served up fresh, Italian black truffles in ways that thrilled me. To cap it off, I wasn’t titillated by truffle foam or truffle syrup reduction. He shaved and diced this famed relative of the mushroom during his 32rd annual truffle dinner. The seven course menu at the Michelin-starred restaurant in the Westin Verasa was delivered with outstanding wines, artistic presentation and sophisticated service.

My dining partner, a.k.a. Mr. Truffle Head, couldn’t wait to dig into his favorite food group. He was more than pleased to join me—at previous dinners I had consistently forked over my truffled whatever onto his plate.

The amuse bouche piqued my interest. A lowly turnip paired with truffle? I like the concept of mixing up high and low cuisine especially when paired with Veuve Cliquot.  So it was that I gobbled down the turnip truffle bao. The hot, creamy savory mix in the tiny bun was delicious, and I began to totally trust Chef’s judgment in the wine pairing department.

Next up, truffled free range egg with brioche. I approached the dish warily having encountered too many dry sticks of truffle stuck in eggs. But the aromas were lovely, not overwhelming. The visuals were stunning. The bread had been squeezed, shaped and toasted into the shape of a mushroom and the egg was served in a cup magnetized to the dish.


Rather than being knocked out by the truffle smell, I processed a wonderfully earthy scent. The first taste with the egg was pure integration of egg, butter and truffle. I couldn’t believe my taste buds were so easily seduced. Meanwhile my friend was transported to the Dordogne where he had lived off egg and truffle. “This is how eggs should always be served, creamy, barely done, and the dish makes it so appealing,” he said between bites.


I asked Frank about the seamless integration of the egg and truffle. He stores his truffles in a container in the walk-in. Truffle aromas penetrate the porous egg shells, gently infusing the egg with truffle scent. Frank continued by emphasizing that truffles are all perfume and no flavor. “The larger the surface area, the more perfume emitted. When you place thin slices on something warm, you double the perfume emanating from the long, concentrate sulfur-based molecules. I julienne the truffles into thin strips and then chopped them thinly to increase their surface with the egg.”

These gentle infusions were enough to spark my own neurons to identify the truffle as friend, not foe. Plus, my friend’s obvious joy with the first courses was contagious. At this point, stirrings of my conversion were evident. Meanwhile the ambiance of the room—golden, earth-toned décor, open kitchen, fireplace and rustic table coverings with leather-like texture—lured me into a warm, woodsy mood to dig into truffle-land.


But first, another confession. We had arrived early and ordered an extra, non-truffle course. My friend ordered skrei, a flavorful, wild Norwegian cod available only in winter months. I ordered the spring vegetable salad with pickled rhubarb and filberts. After all, pickled rhubarb was a new food for us, and truffles grow under hazelnut trees which produce filberts.


The wine pairing with the salad—2011 Côtes-du-Rhone Blanc, “Guy Louis” Tardieu-Laurent—was remarkable. The white Rhone had balance, body and appealing hints of nuts. We reserved some of the wine for the next course, sea scallop “in Black Tie” with Maine lobster and sauce Américaine (a.k.a. lobster à l’Armoricaine).


Though Frank had recommended a fine Chardonnay, a 2011 Black Cordon, Ritchie “Block L” from Russian River Valley, the “Guy Louis” was a stunning pairing. I asked him to comment on the wine. The chef knew the “Guy Louis” well and concurred that we made a good choice. “The white Rhone was an ideal blend. If the blend had more Viognier, it would have been too perfumey. With too much Roussanne and Marsanne , it would have been to rich and fat. But the wine was ideal for the salad with its filbert purée and matched the weight and acidity of the scallop dish.”


I also learned that Frank’s first exposure to truffles was of the canned variety while cooking in a continental restaurant as a teenager. He, too, was anti-truffle until encountering fresh Italian truffles from Corti Bros. in Sacramento.  For La Toque he purchases Italian truffles from trusted sources. Last summer he discovered Australian truffles picked during their winter and prepared successful dinners with them.


The next course nearly threw Mr. Truffle Head into a food and wine frenzy. The winter vegetable salad with short rib and accompaniment, a generous layering thinly of sliced black truffle, was paired with one of his all-time favorites, 2009 Gevrey-Chambertin, Les Vielles Vignes, Vincent Girardin. Frank agreed that this match was not rocket science, but a thoughtful combo of earthy, mushroom-driven wine with the meat, turnips, carrots, onions and earthy perfume of truffle. “The Gevrey-Chambertin always makes friends for us,” added Frank.



Yes, well, I already liked great Burgundies, but now I love them even more for turning me on to truffles.


More truffle treasures. Devil’s Gulch rabbit ballotine, boudin and bratwurst with fresh black truffle. We watched the chefs prepare the dish in the spotless, stainless steel kitchen and liberally slice truffle around the plate. The rabbit was moist and flavorful—and could that be truffles tucked under the roasted lardo crust?




Frank, who considered becoming a doctor or marine biologist before entering the culinary profession, delved deeper into the science of truffles. The flavor molecules of these cousins to mushrooms are fat soluble. Building off the classic ballotine presentation with truffles tucked beneath chicken skin, Frank layered truffle around rabbit meat and covered the combo with lardo for roasting into a delicious flavor burst. “Think of the fat in the egg yolk or cheese or cream dishes—this is where truffle excels. If you put truffles in tomato sauce, the acidity kills their aroma and flavor, and you wonder why they added the black specks.”


But wait. Another element of the rabbit course caused Mr. Truffle Head to swoon.  In addition to the geometric presentation of rolled rabbit ballotine and a sausage ball, the dish also included a small square of truffled potato pave which manifested an enticing cheese-truffle aroma.


When I was neraly ready to pronounce myself cured of my truffle-hating affliction  and Mr. Truffle Head had almost recovered from the rabbit course, the dessert of truffled crème (custard) with toasted white chocolate arrived.


Custard is one of my favorite foods, but the idea of mixing earthy truffles with the sweet, dairy treat seemed dubious. I tried the custard, and every element was balance. I wanted more, but alas, Mr. Truffle Head’s was gone.

How did this dessert win my heart? It became obvious when I asked Frank later about his favorite truffle presentation and he replied, “Ice cream.” He has had 32 years of truffle dinners to find the precise amount of truffle to add into the cream. Custard was simply a riff off his truffled ice cream obsession. The aroma of the truffles in the custard, he noted, is close to that of vanilla, a classic pairing.

Speaking of pairings, the final pairing was one of my favorites:  2008 Ceja, Dulce Beso, Carneros, Late Harvest. The wine, redolent of honey, possesses enough acidity to stand up to the sweet custard. The truffle scent seemed to bring out the best in the wine.

By chance I tasted the wine again a few days later in Napa at the More Uncorked! Women of the Vine event at the Meritage Resort. I told owner Amelia Ceja that the Ceja Dulce Beso and truffle custard was my favorite pairing. She knows Frank and appreciated his support of their winery since their launch in 2001 as the first Latino-owned winery in Napa Valley with vineyards in Carneros close to La Toque.  Ceja reiterated that the late harvest Dulce Beso is only made when the sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes are naturally infected with the botrytis mold. Then she said, “Remember that the Dulce Beso has nothing artificially inseminated into it.”

Well, Ceja's statement linked directly to Frank’s philosophy that truffles should be truffles and not disguised or transformed into something else. No truffles at La Toque were macerated into honey or dried and ground salt. The truffles simply enhanced the natural flavor and aroma attributes of the pristine ingredients and classic cooking techniques. During each course, the powerful truffle aromas were in balance with both the food and wine.

We were given mignardises in a gold-starred gift bag to take home. Two days later Mr. Truffle Head texted me: “Of course after the truffle dinner, we had a rich, delicious chocolate truffle to enjoy.” Sweet, I replied, dinner in a nutshell.

When the Australian truffles ripen this year, Frank will likely conjure up more intriguing wines to pair with them. Meanwhile I will always bless Frank for my initiation into the truffle tribe.





















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