Truffles: The Mozart of Mushrooms


  28.10.16    Hong Kong


Here’s a piece I wrote for Billionaire magazine on what Rossini rather endearingly been called ‘The Mozart of Mushrooms’: 

The truffle has been prized for millennia, lauded by those lucky enough to encounter the rare and capricious jewel. The Roman philosopher and historian Pliny wrote how they were ‘born spontaneously and live without roots, in an aura of mystery’. His fellow Italian, the composer Rossini, called them ‘The Mozart of mushrooms’ 1800 years later, while the English Romantic poet Lord Byron seemingly had one sit on his desk as the unique, musky perfume inspired his creativity.

Today they are more coveted than ever, a gastronomic golden ticket sought out by gourmands the world over. Given their status, it’s easy to forget their humble roots. Indeed, roots are the key as these fungi only prosper underground in soil rich with water and minerals, living symbiotically with tree roots, ideally oak, hazel, poplar and beech. Some rain during the summer and cold in the autumn are the ideal conditions to ripen them up.

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One man better qualified than almost anyone to discuss them is Umberto Toscana, the affable chef and owner of the three Michelin star Otto e Mezzo restaurant in Hong Kong. Signor Toscana hails from Bergamo in northern Italy, just 200 kilometers or so from arguably the most renowned truffle hunting ground of Alba in Piedmont. Here the truffles are, of course, white.

Toscana has been hunting for and cooking with them for more than three decades, recalling his first professional encounter: “I was working in a famous kitchen in Milan and we were all very excited because truffle season was starting.  The intensity was so strong it amazed me and the dishwasher even thought there had been a gas leak!”

Today his signature restaurant and those across his portfolio get through a staggering eighty kilograms of truffles a year, giving him the unofficial nickname of ‘The King of Truffles’.

Three-Michelin-starred Chef Bombana and Jumbo White Truffles.

White truffles are rich in fiber, a complete protein but of course unique in that they cannot be cultivated – only discovered by hunters using dogs or female pigs. In Alba, it takes two to three months for the truffle to grow over the autumn, but timing is critical as only when they are ripe will animals smell then. A truffle that is even slightly under ripe will be white with almost no flavour at all.

Toscana explains, “I grew up going mushroom hunting and still go now. When you see a porcini mushroom you feel so excited that nature gives you this dish – but the truffle is even more so as you really need to go digging.”

Understandably given the prices and prestige involved, truffle-hunting is serious business. “The relation between the truffle hunter and dogs is beautiful. You have to keep them concentrated and excited, have a special relationship, need to train them and to know the trees.” Competition can become fierce and some prize truffle dogs have even being poisoned.

Of course it’s not only the tuber magnatum pico found in Alba from September to December, with San Miniato and Acqualagna in Tuscany renowned for their white truffles and, further afield, varieties found in Croatia, Slovenia and Oregon.

The melansporum black truffles from Périgord in France’s southwest are rightly famous. However black truffles can be cultivated and are also more widespread, with examples found from Tasmania to China to South America. This also means that the white truffle will remain the most elusive and expensive as the market risks being flooded with cheaper black truffles.

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Understandably Bombana prizes Italian truffles highest, even if the early season variations are not up to their autumnal counterparts. “They’re just the best type of truffles. Marzolino (March truffles) are harvested earlier but they a lower grade. It’s the difference between a Fiat and a Ferrari!”

Of course the key comes in preparing them and eating them, while it’s universally agreed that simplicity is paramount in letting the unique musky, slightly garlicky flavours to shine:

“The best is always two or three classic dishes – on a sunny side up egg, in a simple home made pasta with truffles. I also like to layer flavour that goes well with truffle, namely what you taste from the truffle itself. Basically create a recipe with these matching points of truffle, be it garlic, hazelnut, chestnut, butter, dry grass, celery root, Jerusalem artichoke – they all go very well.”

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They also match well with protein, but the no-nos include too much acidity, so tomatoes are clearly out of the question, while he stresses you need to avoid chemical flavours like truffle oils, something he never uses.

Of course they also have to be carefully looked after. Famously, a monster one kilogram fungus was bought for $40,000 by a consortium apparently including Roman Abramovich and Gwyneth Paltrow, but was ruined when it was left in a safe. Bombana wraps his in a cotton or paper towel at one or two degrees where they keep for up to a week.

There’s no shortage of takers, however, so Bombana’s truffle merchant is a busy man. One particular fan is Ranjan Marwah, founder in 1987 of Mother’s Choice, a Hong Kong charity that works with single mothers and crisis pregnancies. He oversees an annual fundraising dinner held at Otto e Mezzo, with Hong Kong consistently outbidding global truffle fans in a charity auction. As Marwah explains, “The best way to have it is Bombana’s plain egg taglioni. He does it better than anyone in the universe, as close to culinary nirvana as you can get. The fragrance, the nose, is out of sight.”

Two millennia on from Pliny, the humble fungus still retains its unique aura of exclusivity and mystery.