The season of indulgence is upon us: It’s time to treat yourself. Make a face-plant in a tray full of gingerbread men while getting tipsy off eggnog. Buy a gift for yourself as a reward for mowing through your holiday shopping list. And if there’s still anything left in it, open your wallet and get a few costly special treats that you can share with friends, like caviar or good Champagne. Remember, the pendulum swing of austerity is a problem for next year.
The epitome of indulgence may well be truffles, which start showing up on restaurant menus in November and disappear after the ball drops on the new year. Perigord and white truffles, the most celebrated (and expensive) of these special mushrooms, are best in late fall through the end of the year. It’s fortunate that their peak coincides with the spendy season: Perigords can go for between $600 and $1,500 per pound, while white truffles might garner as much as $2,500 per pound. Earlier in the fall, Burgundy truffles — a thriftier choice at about $400 per pound — dominate.
Pricing differences can be partially explained by flavor differences. Burgundy truffles (often listed on menus as black truffles) are more subtle and earthy than the Perigords, a white-veined black truffle with a stronger perfume. “Burgundy is like the PG version of the X-rated Perigords,” says Max MacKissock, chef/co-owner at Morin, where black truffles are currently on the menu for $20 for twelve grams. White truffles are more fragrant still.
No matter which truffle you try, though, it’s likely to have a more delicate flavor than you might expect. That’s thanks to the proliferation of truffle oil, which is almost always made from chemical compounds, not real truffles. “Sometimes, if a guest doesn’t get that smack in the face, they’re a little disappointed,” says Oak at Fourteenth’s Steve Redzikowski.
Fragrance and flavor can depend on ripeness, too, which is why truffles get better (and more expensive) later in the season. “The truffle must have the ripeness,” says Frasca’s Eduardo Valle Lobo. “If it doesn’t have so much aroma, keep it until it shows.”
Truffles also range in price because of their relative rarity, and harvesting each kind requires a different process. The white truffles that come from Alba — the hardest to find — are ferreted out by pigs and dogs who are raised on diets of milk and truffle, sometimes for as much as two years before they start to hunt, says Valle Lobo. Dogs are more common in France, where the Perigords and Burgundy truffles are more common, according to MacKissock.
All truffles are getting rarer, which explains the continued price bumps, especially for the Albas. “They’re finding fewer truffles every year,” says Redzikowski. “Who knows? In twelve or fifteen years, you might not see these without flying to Europe.”
Many regions are trying to push rare mushrooms on their own turf, but so far, few have managed to compete. Valle Lobo says he’s seen good white truffles out of Croatia and Romania, but they don’t command the same prices as specimens from Alba. According to Chris Starkus of Urban Farmer, truffles from others parts of the world — including those cultivated in Australia and Oregon — just haven’t attained the same level of distinction. “I haven’t had any of that same quality,” he says. “You’re looking for intensity of flavor.”
And forget substituting another mushroom for the truffle — even if it’s a very rare mushroom. “There’s just no way to sub truffliness,” says Starkus, though he does acknowledge that truffles can be a gateway to other mushrooms.
Once you decide to splurge on the real thing, how do you make the most of it? First, follow the chef’s advice on pairing: While most restaurants will grate their truffle supplement on any dish you want, black truffles work best with meatier dishes such as steak or foie gras, because they’re well-suited to the earthiness of the mushroom, says Redzikowski. Valle Lobo agrees, and adds fish to the list. MacKissock points out that the pommes aligot (whipped potatoes) at Morin are also well suited to this specimen. And Starkus says he puts them on sandwiches.
White truffles, on the other hand, “need something that’s really fatty that’s a sponge for it,” notes Redzikowski. That’s why you see many restaurants serve a simple gnocchi or risotto as a bed for white truffles.
“I love white truffles with butter and pasta,” observes MacKissock. “Tagliatelle, butter, parmesan and a ton of truffle.”
Frasca, Morin, Bar Dough, Urban Farmer and Oak at Fourteenth are all offering truffle supplements this season, and several restaurants around town will also offer prix fixe truffle dinners. In addition, Oak at Fourteenth is offering a few composed dishes, including a beef tartare and a gnocchi with black truffles, which showcase the tubers in ideal pairings.
One tip: Indulge early. The truffles on November’s menus “are not cheap,” Redzikowski notes, “but we can charge less now to the guest than in December.”
Denver’s most long-lived truffles celebration is at Barolo Grill, which is offering Perigord black truffles throughout the season at $25 per five grams. You might also be able to sneak in for white truffles, which could remain on the menu through Thanksgiving weekend at $60 for five grams.
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At Bar Dough, you can add five grams of white truffles to any dish for $25. Morin is offering twelve grams of black truffles for $20.
At Oak at Fourteenth, you can add four grams of white truffles to any dish for $40, and four grams of black truffles to any dish for $15. The restaurant is also offering three composed dishes until the truffles run out. Look for 7X beef tartare with white Alba truffle and Red Wagon Farm sunchokes ($26); potato gnocchi with black truffle, egg yolk and Gruyère fondue ($18); and raclette fondue tortellini with black truffles, hazelnuts and quince ($28).
Urban Farmer is currently using Burgundy black truffles at a supplement price of $1.50 per gram and is offering a special of Parmesan risotto with Burgundy truffles ($20). Keep an eye out for white truffles come New Year’s Eve, price TBD.
And in a major mushroom blowout, Frasca Food and Wine will launch a truffle-tasting menu on December 5 that will run through the end of the year. The prix fixe meal is $225 per person for eight courses of truffle dishes, including brodo de capone (tortellini, chicken brodo and white truffle); maiale Ibérico (Iberian pork, truffle and chestnut); and scampi crudo (langoustine, white truffle and brown butter). Frasca will also offer a special holiday menu.