Winter is harsh. The pocket book is empty. Still, there is a need for some small opulence, a flavour that is warm and earthy and pungent. Dare we suggest truffles? Unfortunately this scribe did not make it to Northern Italy in time for the harvest of the famed white truffle, the Tuber Magnatum Pico, perhaps the most luscious and fully flavoured of the species. In Italy, truffle varieties have distinct seasons and the white truffles ended on December 31. Pity. Of course the market price alone would have been prohibitive. Good specimens fetch hundreds of dollars. All this for a chunk of buried fungus that is somewhat larger than a walnut but smaller than your fist.
Still, lovers of good food have been indulging in truffles since Romans set the table. In Europe, until relatively recently, old virgin women were reputed to posses the uncanny ability to unearth these hidden treasures. (In passing, I would suggest that this presents an obvious problem since truffles are also reputed to be a powerful aphrodisiac.) Not surprisingly, the church frowned on old women scurrying through the woods, with a pack of men in pursuit. In any case, when we think of truffle hunters we usually imagine old men with berets and staves following a pig or truffle hound. Dogs are preferable, by the way, since they are trained to find these mushrooms but dont really like them. Pigs, however, are pigs and the staves are used to push the animals away once this delicious food has been found.
There are truffles in North America, just as there is caviar in Great Lakes sturgeon, but similarly, it doesnt compare well with the real thingthe black truffles of France or the white truffles of Italy. That is why I was thrilled to find that a few Montreal stores now sell white truffle oil. There wont be any truffle in the oil which gets its flavour from an infusion of shavings. A few Italian companies make truffle oil, Urbani is considered the best. A thumb-sized bottle sells for $4, just enough to savour a taste which I find both powerful and intimate.
Sprinkle a few drops on pasta that has been tossed with a simple sauce of warmed olive oil and and a little chopped garlic. For a sensational spread, mix a capful of truffle oil with a tablespoon of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and beat this into a half cup of unsalted butter. Serve it at room temperature. There should be just enough for two.