Of all the luxury foods that may make an appearance on our tables this festive season, there are three luxury food products that go back in history as the ultimate gastronomic luxury.
If we can’t indulge ourselves, our family, our friends, at Christmastime, when can we? So, let’s put the diet regime firmly on the back-burner of New Year’s resolutions ideas, and enjoy ourselves. Foie gras, caviar, and truffles are three of life’s great gastronomic indulgences.
Although foie gras is a controversial product because its production raises concerns about animal welfare, most of the top suppliers these days are careful to say that they source foie gras only from carefully selected farms where excellent welfare standards prevail. However, the production of foie gras in the UK is banned.
The force feeding of selected ducks and geese is known to date back to pre-Roman times and today there is some opposition to the methods used, even in France, a nation that has the largest consumption of foie gras. The gastronomes’ bible, Larousse gastronomique, justifies the method in terms more fitting for the 19th century than the 21st: ‘The goose is nothing, but man has made of it an instrument for the output of a marvelous product, a kind of living hothouse in which there grows the supreme fruit of gastronomy.’
Whatever your views are on the production of foie gras, the product itself, with its rich and creamy texture, continues to make foie gras to be seen as the ultimate luxury food and a favourite starter on some fine dining tables.
If you do acquire fresh, uncooked foie gras, one of the best ways to prepare this delicacy is to sear the thick slices quickly in a very hot cast iron pan, served immediately on brioche toast, accompanied by a glass of sauternes.
Foie gras also makes its appearance as a delicious pâté, available in tins. This rich pâté is frequently enhanced by the addition of our second luxury food product, truffles.
The jewel of cookery
Described as ‘the jewel of cookery’ by the great food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), truffles can transform even the most modest cuisine into a gastronomic delight.
Shaved onto a pasta dish or a simple risotto, some flakes of truffle transform simple Italian staples into an exquisite dish. The increasing rarity of the truffle, combined with its exquisite flavour and therefore frequent use in haute cuisine, results in enormous prices for buyers and huge profits for the truffle hunter.
Currently truffles are priced around £335 per kilo, though black truffles can cost more than £1,000 per kilo, and the rare Piedmont white truffles, which are so delicate they are only eaten raw, can fetch up to £4,000 a kilo. A record price paid for a truffle was set at the end of 2007, when a white truffle weighing 1.5kg was sold at auction for £165,000. Discovered in northern Italy by a truffle hunter and his dog, it was bought by Macau-based casino owner, Stanley Ho, who outbid Damien Hirst to claim the prized fungus.
Truffles may look similar to mushrooms, however their taste is far more satisfying. Dr Paul Thomas, who is a renowned truffle cultivator, says: ‘The scent and flavour of truffles is sublime. Its heady, deep, rich and earthy tones are unforgettable.’ Said to have aphrodisiac properties, Brillat-Savarin commented that the truffle, ‘arouses erotic and gastronomic memories’ amongst both the ‘skirted’ and ‘bearded’ sexes. French royalty were especially fond of the truffle’s aphrodisiac charms; Henri IV gave them to his mistresses while Louis XV’s wife feasted on them and went on to have 10 children.
Growing mostly in Northern Italy, Spain, and Mediterranean regions of France, Croatia and Slovenia, each truffle has a different season. The prized French Perigord black truffles are in season from December to March, the white truffle from Italian Piedmont from October to November, and summer truffles from July to November. Truffles can also be found in the UK and other parts of Europe. These are termed summer truffles, and are more mildly flavoured and worth less than their European counterparts at around £150-£250 per kilo.
See also: Caviar bowl
Truffles grow underground in tree roots, and they are traditionally discovered using a pig or dog. Each species of truffle prefers a different tree species and a specific soil type. They appear in the same spot each year, which is why professional truffle hunters are careful to hide the identity of their ‘truffle trees’ . Some even take the secret of their location so seriously that they take it with them to the grave rather than handing it down to their children.
Heading out in the dead of night with their dog or pig, the truffle hunter must find the truffles as quickly as possible, to thwart rival truffle hunters. Elisabeth Luard, author of Truffles, says dramatically: ‘It’s a fight to the death, with pistols at dawn.’ Local authorities also impose strict times of year that truffle hunters are allowed to forage, so it’s a race against time to find the fungi. Dogs are now used more commonly than pigs because the latter are so fond of the truffles they often consume them before the truffle hunter has a chance to grasp them. However, dogs are more favoured by hunters, having greater agility.
It takes around four years to train a dog to hunt for truffles. To start the process small pieces of truffle are put in their food so they develop a passion for the flavour, which leads to them eventually digging up the luxury truffles themselves. Italian truffle hunter Mario, who has been hunting the fungi for 60 years, and takes tourists from Bellini Travel on truffle hunts in the autumn, says: ‘We start with a strong cheese like Gorgonzola and we hide it around the house and grounds. As the dog becomes better at finding the cheese, we then start to bury it underground. Once the dog is capable of finding the cheese, we start to hide pieces of truffle underground as well. A good dog that finds a truffle near the surface will not try to dig but will wait for the truffle hunter to dig it up to avoid any damage.’
The farmed truffle
Today, very few truffles are still gathered in this natural way. In the early 1900s, 2,000 tonnes of truffles was produced annually in Europe at the peak of truffle production, now just 60 tonnes are produced. The huge decline in production is mainly attributed to a mass exodus from the countryside, which has left woodland overgrown and wild, an inhabitable environment for truffles that prefer a light, airy environment. There are other factors too, such as global warming, which has disrupted the precise weather conditions that ensure successful truffle cultivation. It’s unlikely that wild truffle hunting will ever reach the popularity levels of the 1900s, Luard says: ‘The woods which are left are not cropped as knowledgeably as they were when fungi-gathering, including truffles, was an add-on to other activities such as pig-herding, charcoal-burning and so forth.’
Since the 19th century, truffle farms have been artificially cultivating truffles. When Frenchman Joseph Talon discovered that the seeds growing under a truffle-producing tree could be used to grow more truffle trees, his find saved the truffle industry. In France, around 90 percent of truffle production is now artificially cultivated. In recent years the technology used in cultivation has improved vastly, with companies using ever more scientific methods. Dr Paul Thomas, who has a PhD in plant sciences, set up Mycorrhizal Systems, now a world leader in truffle cultivation technology. He has farms worldwide and in the UK where he artificially cultivates trees with fungus-covered roots to produce summer and black truffles. Dr Thomas explains: ‘What we do is propagate the truffle fungus and introduce it to the root system of a tree in a lab and make sure that both the truffle and tree are growing together. We then recreate exact soil conditions in the field and plant the trees – essentially what we’re doing is re-creating a native and naturally balanced woodland system, with management.’ As the trees take four to seven years to produce truffles, they are just coming into harvest this year.
Dr Paul Thomas planted the fungus on 20 farms and estates around Britain six years ago. He has found the 39g specimen under a young holly-oak tree. The entrepreneur, who appeared on the TV series ‘Dragon's Den’, said it was the ‘birth of the UK truffle industry’.
After a decade of waiting, Dr Thomas believes that his other sites will also start producing truffles later this year. He told the BBC recently, ‘There are other sites that are almost certainly fruiting.’
The case for caviar
Caviar, the roe of the sturgeon, has always had the reputation of a luxury food. Caviar is rich in lecithin and vitamins A, B, and D as well as many other valuable minerals such as Omega 3. As a result, throughout history caviar has been prescribed for many ailments, from depression to impotency. However, you don’t need to be an expert in its medicinal properties to appreciate its very special luxury flavours. Gourmets differentiate between three nuances in taste, namely sevruga caviar, oscietra caviar, and beluga caviar, however, the family extends to some 33 species of other fish.
Wild caviar has not been banned, although the last export permits for wild caviar were issued in 2007, and with an increasing number of high quality caviar aquacultures worldwide, there is no reason for new wild caviar quotas to be granted any time soon.
After 20 years of research, caviar farms have today mastered the rearing of sturgeon and this also contributes to the preservation of this majestic fish.
The total worldwide production of aquaculture caviar is now similar to that of wild caught caviar of 10 to 15 years ago.
There has been a trend for caviar farms to draw on the talent and experience of renowned Iranian and Russian caviar masters previously employed by governments, to create farmed products with real depth of flavour. Using age-old salting recipes similar to that of wild caught caviar.
Caviar is judged by its colour, flavour, roe size and texture, with the finest caviar coming from older fish producing larger and lighter coloured roe; lower quality caviar is identified by having smaller, softer, darker eggs having a salty, fishy flavour.
• Caviar tip — Although caviar comes in metal tins it is incorrect to use a metal spoon when putting caviar in your mouth. A metallic reaction of the metal and the caviar will reduce the subtlety of the caviar when it reaches your palate. So, avoid a metal spoon. A mother of pearl spoons will ensure the best taste experience for this luxury food.
See also: Raymond Blanc Cookery School