|It has been over thirty years now since I started writing about wine. I was living in Paris and doing research on the history of the Bordeaux wine trade, and it seemed a natural thing to do. I was passionate about food as well, and it was not long before I added that to my repertoire: Paris had a lot to offer in that line, and it still does. When I returned to live in England in 1985 and began writing for the nationals, I added travel too, as that provided me with another canvas for describing food, wine, and of course history.
Things have changed a lot out there, however, and the chances of making regular contributions to our knowledge of wine, food and travel have become few and far between. Newspaper wine writing has degenerated into short strings of tasting notes mostly concentrating on the sort of wines that hardly deserve comment, let alone praise. Such specialised magazines as there are publish the views of their own ‘specialists’. The ‘generalist’ has become an endangered species.
Beyond the headland of the press, lies a great, stormy sea of blogs - so many vociferous tub-thumpers bending the ears of anyone who will listen and hoping that they too will become authorities once the waters finally calm.
With the future of the press as we know it hanging in the balance, we are told the blog is the way forward. Having resisted manfully for several years, I have decided to refind my voice, and from now on I intend to present a monthly diary, reporting on any interesting wines, tastings or meals, and from time to time throwing in a recipe.
The Power of Sex:
Hunting the Black Winter Truffle
Posted: 3rd February 2015
The black truffle season runs from December to March and God willing - in a fortnight or so - I shall be at the epicentre of the truffle-producing area in northern Provence. Between them, the Vaucluse and Drôme départements account for some sixty percent of French truffles. Périgord, which has the higher-sounding name, is good for about a third of this. I have been told it has been a short, poor season and truffles have been scarce since Christmas. Prices are quoted locally between €600 - €750, and twice that in Paris. I placed my orders early with reliable locals and with any luck my short stay will be blessed by a few memorable meals.
Not everyone is ready for truffles. The smell of a ripe truffle is earthiness made flesh. It is reminiscent of the bedroom: tangled sheets after a sticky night of sex. For the uninitiated, it can be disgusting. Travelling back from the professional truffle market in Richerenches in the Vaucluse a few years ago, I wrapped my precious acquisitions in a paper handkerchief and popped them in my pocket. I did not think of them again until I was 30,000 feet above the ground, somewhere between Marseille and Lyon.
I was conscious that the man sitting next to me was eyeing me with a blend of discomfort, suspicion and malevolence. When the fasten-seat-belt light went off, he got up and moved well away to another seat further down the aircraft. It was only then that I realised that he objected to the smell emanating from my pocket.
Had my fellow passenger known the odour hailed from that small, black, carbuncular tubers that the founding father of gastronomy, Grimod de La Reynière called ‘the foretaste of paradise,’ I imagine he would have asked to have a look (or even a sniff). Few people have the good fortune to experience the true flavour of truffles. At most the truffle they encounter is represented by a tasteless black fleck in the centre of a piece of foie gras (and probably only a piece of beetroot or horn of plenty mushroom - the standard duplicity), or some inert summer or Chinese truffle, fraudulently labelled Tuber melanosporum and sold at a huge price from a fancy delicatessen. The nearest thing to an authentic smell comes from those the little phials of oil in which a truffle has allegedly been bathed, and which are as often as not manufactured by an adroit combination of chemicals.
To a pig or a dog, however, that smell is meaningful enough. They know where to find them in the tangled mass of oak scrub that is the Mediterranean forest or maquis. A dog will need training, but for pigs it is innate. A sow finds the smell reminiscent of the boar’s scrotum, a thought so delicious to her that she is reluctant to yield up the truffle once she has taken it from the earth. Dogs are more pliant: a piece of bread or a biscuit will generally induce them to drop the truffle. In the old days there were proper turf wars over the maquis as truffle hunters asserted their rights to operate in a small piece of land known to yield the plumpest and the best. The land was never their own, but they assumed hunters’ rights whether the landlord liked it or not and most of the latter would have lacked the courage to stand in their way. These days, however, many of them have created truffières: a collection of local oaks planted on sandy soils that remind the truffles of their natural habitat. Truffières have the advantage of being easier to police.
As Pierre Sogno’s novel Le Serre aux truffes so vividly narrates, criminality and truffles are never far apart. Prized truffle-dogs are poisoned, sacks of truffles go missing from the gatherer’s homes and all manner of theft is a daily occurrence until the sources run dry at the end of February.
Some of the greatest fraud takes place at the market where the brokers come to acquire truffles for leading restaurants and grocers. Payments are strictly in cash. The French revenue service - ‘le fisc’ - must never know how many truffles have been sold. The hunter trades from the boot of his car. Any unfamiliar face caught snooping, and the hatch is slammed shut. The truffle-hunter sits on the boot brows knitted, his arms fiercely crossed until the stranger goes away.
The brokers are used to their shenanigans and some fraud is tolerated. They will buy if at least seventy percent of the bag is good. The more cynical brokers then sell the thirty percent of Chinese and tasteless summer truffles on to the canners who promptly defraud gullible consumers. Another trick is to increase the weight of the truffles by sticking clods and lumps of iron into the crevices of the tuber and then rounding it off with mud. Before he buys, the broker goes to work with a sharp knife, dipping into the sack offered by the hunter and scraping at the truffle to find any concealed weights. Too many instances of fraud from the rugged-looking fellow in the cloth cap and windcheater and the broker will never buy his truffles again.
At the restaurant Beaugravière at Mondragon near Orange, the chef Guy Jullien takes his truffles very seriously. In season black truffles are piled two or three feet high in a huge salver in the centre of his kitchen. He is so well known in the area that he gets the pick of the crop: tubers the size of tennis balls are scrubbed clean and glisten like so many pieces of wet coal. The aroma is sensational. At the slightest provocation he will design a menu entirely around the truffle: soupe VGE was created for the former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing - truffle slices cooked in a goose stock under a puff pastry lid, the smell of which explodes under the diner’s nose when he breaks through the crust; a truffle omelette (in reality, scrambled eggs with truffles - the standard Provencal preparation); a chicken demi-deuil (‘half-in-mourning’) with slivers of black truffle inserted between the skin and the flesh to perfume the bird; a whole brie cheese, horizontally cut in two and filled with truffles; and vanilla ice cream, peppered with truffle flakes... The taste is indescribable. The atmosphere is electric. There are moments when you can hear a pin drop - so enchanted are the diners by the taste of heaven.
Black Truffle Risotto
(Starter for 4)
30g Black Winter Truffles
1 litre of chicken stock
180g Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1 small onion, chopped very fine
2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
250ml dry white wine
50g butter, diced
50g finely grated Parmesan
Salt to taste
Using a mandoline, shave two-thirds of the fresh truffles into a mixing bowl. Grate the cheese into the same bowl, and add the diced butter and 1tbsp olive oil. Mix gently.
Bring a small saucepan to the boil with the stock and keep it simmering. Meanwhile using a heavy based flat-bottomed pan, sauté the onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the rice to the onion and heat through until all grains are hot and coated in oil.
Add the wine to the rice and stir until dissolved. Then add 1 ladleful of hot stock, again stirring until dissolved. Keep adding small quantities of stock until rice is cooked. This will take approx. 15-20 minutes from adding the wine. Rice should be al dente and the risotto the consistency of a thick soup. Turn off heat, add the butter-fresh-truffle & parmesan mixture and quickly beat into the risotto until it is creamy. Leave for 1 minute.
Serve the risotto in bowls. Shave any remaining truffles over the individual portions at the table.
Posted: 5th January 2015
December is the party season and even in these lean, twilight years there are plenty of invitations if you want them. I don’t take many bites from the apple, but on the corporate side I went to both the Pernod-Ricard and the Chivas Brothers lunches, the latter in the Burroughs Distillery in Kennington where Jim Long showed me how they had recently turned the place into a museum with many opportunities to sample the gin as you admired the exhibits. This seemed an admirable development from the days when the distillery turned its back on its public; after all gin and London have walked out hand in hand for centuries.
I went to most of the Christmas parties given by friends and agents and to a curious concert at the Bulgarian Embassy where a man played a traditional Balkan flute while a lady sang and children amused themselves by scampering through the guests’ legs.
Among December’s special treats I would have to list the dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde and the Bad Sex Awards. In Stephen Gould, Nina Stemme had a tenor who was her equal, although I have to say John Tomlinson was sadly croaky. The Bad Sex Awards crowned Ben Okri - or rather, didn’t, because he didn’t turn up - but it remains about the best party of the season and a great tribute to the late Bron Waugh, who conceived it, and his son Alexander, who presents the show now. After I had my share of such distractions, London shut down as usual and Christmas reared its head.
Christmas feasts have become more paltry with the passing years, particularly when it comes to wine. Gone are the days when - in my mid-twenties - I went off to Hédiard on the place de la Madeleine and returned FF400 (£40) the poorer but armed with a bottle of 1971 La Tâche. There were just two of us then, with champagne, a haunch of wild boar and even a bottle of indifferent Pomerol in reserve. Needless to say I drank most of it. That wine costs over £3,000 a bottle today - and in bond. If anyone is interested, Berry Brothers has magnums at £26,000 and rising.
There was a little shop opposite the church of St. Roch in the rue St. Honoré that had a nice collection of first growth clarets. I remember being able to buy good years like 1961, 1962, 1966 or 1970 for a few hundred francs, which was possible for a once-a-year treat; also Nicholas used to bring out old bottles from its massive cellars in Charenton and these were distributed around its Paris branches. Their Yuletide window displays were the source of many, largely unfulfilled fantasies, but one Christmas I recall the 1966 Haut-Brion, and there were surely other wines of that quality. Another year a couple of friends (the German-wine guru Joel Payne was one) clubbed together to buy me a bottle of 1955 Yquem for my birthday. The cheapest I can find it now is £555 a bottle but I don’t imagine they paid a tenth part of that.
The globalisation of wine snobbery seems to have put paid to these cheap-ish treats. Ordinary people simply cannot afford to drink the top wines anymore and even those plutocratic Tampa or Orlando dentists who used to collect first growths and send first-class airline tickets to the likes of Michael Broadbent, seem to have ceded their places to Hong Kong businessmen and Shanghai traders; although one new friend admitted to me last month that he had bought three cases of 1982 Mouton thirty years ago and that now they were ripe, he opened one every Christmas and believed his 36-bottle cache would see him out.
There are still one or two half-decent things derrière les fagots here, although they won’t console us quite like the friend with his rack of Mouton. We started with some Mumm, a champagne that has got so much better in recent times that you feel obliged to take back all the nasty things you have ever said about it. Food had come from all over, it seemed: some fabulous goose livers flew in from the Central Market in Budapest and two of the largest lobsters I have ever cooked came up from Devon for Christmas Eve. They deserved a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne at the very least, but I had only some Chablis Montmains from my old friend Bernard Légland to give them, and the 2011 was greatly superior to the 2010, which I found rather stringy. There was a little treat in the wine for the Vacherin Mont d’or, a 2001 Castello Vicchiomaggio Riserva which was rich and luscious and tasted of blackberries.
I opened some Pol Roger on Christmas Day, still non-vintage, but from a case I bought when After the Reich came out, so 2007. It must have been cellared in 2004. Old NV champagne from good houses is rarely disappointing. That went with the liver. With our goose I had planned to sacrifice a magnum of 1998 Château Talbot had been hoarding since 2001 and as it transpired, one of our guests had brought a bottle of Haut-Batailley from the same vintage.
I was mildly disappointed by the Talbot, which I found a bit crumbly and wondered whether I hadn’t stored it badly. The Haut-Batailley, though a less prestigious wine, was more unctuous. We finished off with some 2003 Gewürztraminer Eiswein from my favourite Styrian grower Alois Gross, which was a rather more lyrical dessert than our commercial Christmas pudding, which had been made by Bloomers - or so it said - and he’d hidden a very sweet orange in the middle of it. After that we went upstairs and wept at Random Harvest.
My family went to the country soon after Christmas, leaving me with a fridge full of leftovers. There was more than enough there to last the week they were away. Only one night did I rebel and buy something different, and that was for New Year’s Eve. In Britain we do not have any culinary traditions for the end of the year besides getting drunk and throwing up. Many years ago I decided I would adopt the Italian practise of eating a zampone or cotechino sausage with lentils and mashed potatoes. The lentils are supposed to represent the money you hope to earn in the following year. I thought they would be enough and this year I omitted the mash - after all, it’s the money that counts.
I also bought some Italian lentils, but discovered far too late, that I was supposed to soak them, so I used red, Ethiopian ones instead, cooking them in goose stock. Even a small cotechino proved plenty of sausage.
Naturally an Italian meal calls for Italian wine and poking around in a little stash I keep I found some 1997 Pronotto Barolo which I thought would do me fine. There was a pipkin of Mumm in the fridge, about a glass and a quarter, and that I drank as an aperitif.
The star of the show was the Barolo, which was I think the best wine I drank during the Christmas feast; although it should be added that this was not the single-vineyard wine. It had quite pronounced aromas of violets and the most gorgeous filigree acidity and a huge length that kept coming and going in waves across my tongue. The tannins were fine and silky, and it provided voluble company while I watched Greta Garbo as Queen Christina. There were even a couple of glasses left over for New Year’s Day.
And so I begin a new year...
Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2015 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.