Black Périgord truffle, image courtesy moi-même
Truffles are divisive ... you either love them or hate them, so if you're looking ahead for a Valentine's Day recipe for your beloved, it's as well to check with them first. My husband once watched, with bemusement and possibly just a tinge of horror, as I troughed through an entire truffle-based menu at a French restaurant, from starter through to dessert.
Do they deserve their reputation as an aphrodisiac? He would recoil at the idea and I was too replete to even think about bedroom gymnastics. I went to sleep happy, though.
One of my proudest moments as a TV journalist was when I convinced the commissioning editor to let me make a segment about an English company trying to grow truffles. It turned out we'd already done the story some time before and the company in question, with an eye to free advertising, had failed to mention it. Our bad, for not noticing. But I didn't care, as I also got to interview Antonio Carluccio, who served me pasta topped with thick shavings of fresh white truffle. I was in pig heaven.
Truffle-hunting pig, image courtesy Robert Vayssié
It's the piggy part, of course, that puts some people off as the aroma of truffles is said to resemble that of a male pig's hormones. Nonetheless, human truffle lovers find it quite as enticing as the average sow, which means real truffles, white or black, are prohibitively expensive for anyone except perhaps a hedge fund manager. Summer truffles, the only ones that are native to the UK, are seen as a pale imitation although if a visiting dog dug one up in our garden I'd be turning somersaults with joy.
There are ways to eke them out: storing them with eggs or burying them in a jar of risotto rice, both of which take up the truffle aroma. But there are also products aimed at those of us who can't afford the real thing. Some are better than others. The small pot of truffled salt I bought smelled stale and musty, like a cat had weed in it about a hundred years ago. It went in the bin.
Truffled chicken breast with parmesan cream
The tiny and still comparatively expensive jars of truffle shavings, while sometimes a bit gritty, are actually pretty good if you insert a few slivers under the skin of a chicken before roasting. It works with chicken breasts too, which makes for a quick and luxurious supper.
Just cut some slits in the skin, insert the truffle slices, and fry skin-side down gently (so the skin doesn't shrink) until golden, then turn the chicken over and finish in the oven at 180C. I serve it with noodles and a parmesan cream sauce.
But I discovered a new-to-me product when we got off the ferry in Santander in Spain in the middle of a crashing thunderstorm.
We'd booked into a rather grand 19th century hotel and, unwilling to venture out in the torrential rain, asked for a table in the restaurant. We dined in solitary splendour, of course, not yet having acclimatised to the Spanish habit of eating close to midnight.
The chef served a starter of fresh pasta with a poached egg, grated parmesan and truffle pearls. These look like caviar but burst on your tongue with the flavour of truffles. The combination of egg yolk, truffle and cheese made the most delicious sauce for the pasta. I wanted to lick the plate.
The restaurant version
The pearls are made, I think, by a process of spherification and encased in a thin alginate coating. According to one manufacturer this is a great way to 'participate in the Molecular Gastronomy revolution, with minimal effort'. Ho hum. Vegetarians should be aware that some, though not all, are coloured with squid ink. I'm probably making them sound foul but I was so taken with them that I ordered a tiny pot when I got home.
As my husband likes neither pasta nor truffles, it sat in the cupboard for far too long and this week I decided to eat it before its use-by expired. All by myself. Unfortunately I think I'd left it too late, as any scent of truffle had long since evaporated. If you buy these things, I'd advise using them quickly.
I won't give a recipe as a) the chances of you having truffle pearls in your store cupboard are remote and you would rightly lambast me for my pretension and b) I don't think anyone needs instruction on how to cook such a simple dish. It tastes fabulous though, assuming your stock rotation is better than mine. And lest you think I neglected my wifely duties, my husband had a pie, which as regular readers will know is much more up his street. He might get a pie tomorrow night too, just so I can eat it again, this time with truffle oil.
The home-cooked version