Truffles: Move Over Piedmont, Here Comes Balehonnur


As Susan Boyle recently showed the world, appearances can be deceptive. Take the truffle, for example. It’s never going to win a culinary beauty contest – heck, it’s not even going to qualify for the first round. Yet this butt-ugly mofo manages to find its way into the kitchens of the rich, the famous, the culinary Rembrandts, the nouveaux riche, the wannabes and even the don’t-wannabes. People pay hundreds of dollars for a single top-quality truffle: an astronomical sum for a gastronomical luxury (okay, that was uncool, but I couldn’t resist).

Made in India...

Made in India...

To learn that these stinky, blob-like mycorrhizae (look it up, baby!) have been growing right under our noses, uncelebrated, right next door in Chikmaglur, came as a bit of a shock. When chef extraordinaire Abhijit Saha invited me to his swish new restaurant Caperberry to check out ‘The Great Indian Truffle’, I was there before you could say “tuberous fungifus”.

What, Where, and Why?

What: I once witnessed a loud argument that took place between the waiter and the owner of a crab shack in Maryland (my love for crab is well known). The waiter insisted that truffles belong to the fungi family. His boss begged to differ, insisting that truffles are a kind of tuber.

Pigs sniff out these "gems of the forest"

Pigs sniff out these "gems of the forest"

So, is it a potato or a mushroom? Both. Truffles are a group of fungi that belong to the genus “tuber”. They are mushrooms that develop beneath the ground. In fact, they are the only subterranean fungi, and share a symbiotic relationship with certain species of trees. Truffles have resisted organized cultivation; collecting them is labor intensive, adding to their desirability factor and cost. Because they grow up to a foot underground, they must first be sniffed out by muzzled sows or dogs, then retrieved by human ‘tartufai’ or truffle hunters.

Depending on their provenance and color, truffles are classified as either black or white.

Where: Given that there are approximately 70 recognized varieties of

Traditional truffle hunting grounds

Traditional truffle hunting grounds

truffles, they vary considerably in quality and aroma. The finest truffles in the world are to be found in Périgord in France (black) or Piedmont in Italy (white). Black truffles are obscenely expensive because they have a more intense flavor than white. White truffles are even more obscenely expensive, however, because they are harder to find.

Truffles are also harvested in Spain, England, China, the Northwest U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand. Although all have the distinctive truffle flavor, none are as strong as the French or Italian varieties; much like the grapes cultivated for wine, this has to do with soil and microclimate.

Why: I’m not really sure. If truffles don’t look good, they don’t taste great either – in fact, they don’t really have a taste, just an aroma. That aroma can be variously described as: pungent; earthy; muddy; musky; woody; onion-y; garlicky. If you do happen to actually bite into a too-large piece of truffle, it leaves a bitter aftertaste.

I first had the privilege of tasting a few shavings of black French truffle at the tender age of 17. At the time, there was so little of it, and my fellow “adult” diners were so reverent, that I knew I was eating something special. The flavor-aroma was so unusual, so strong, that it was filed under “unforgettable” in my sensory filing system. If I were asked to describe it, I’d say: an overpoweringly strong chive/wild garlic flavor, bordering on – yet stopping just short of – unpleasant. Too much makes you a little dizzy-sick in the way that a concentrated whiff of a heady, sweet perfume does.

So here’s the thing, and I’m sure you’ve heard this cliché before: it’s an acquired taste. My guess is that if you enjoy strong flavors like blue and green cheeses, you’ll like the flavor of truffles. If not, you’re going to wonder why people pay for the privilege of ruining perfectly good food with the aroma of smelly shoe.

The Great Indian Truffle…

…has apparently been growing in the forests of the Western Ghats for a long while, with people like Mr. Suresh Pai and his friends callously kicking the “large yellow round things” around the forest floor with great abandon while out hunting. Until an article on truffles in Business Line tipped Mr. Pai off to the fact that he may have been blithely stomping on an extremely valuable edible mushroom, he had never heard the word “truffle”.

Unlikely tartufai!

Suresh Pai and Abhijit Saha: unlikely tartufai!

On consulting with mycologists (um, yeah, there are really people who dedicate their careers to studying mushrooms) around the world, he confirmed that the Balehonnur Blobs were indeed a species of truffle, and were therefore edible.

That’s where chef Saha came in. After over a year of trudging through the forest to collect the elusive fungi during their season; experimenting in the lab and the kitchen to see if it could be cultivated (no), preserved (no), or used as a viable ingredient (hell, yes!); and learning, learning, learning (hallmark of a good chef), Caperberry has evolved a special menu designed to showcase these truffles.

Caperberry’s Truffle Menu

At the outset, I need to let you know that I did not pay for this meal. This was a by-invitation tasting session at which I was introduced to Mr. Pai, desi truffles, and Caperberry’s truffle-centric menu.

I opted to start my meal with a classic combination – scrambled eggs with truffles – and was taken aback by the unusually lavish amount of black truffle that had been scattered atop the perfectly-cooked scrambled eggs. The first morsel explained the generous helping: on the flavor scale, these truffles are very, very mild. Still, the shavings that were exposed to the heat of the egg for a little longer had released the faintest whiff of their aroma by the time I got to them. Barely detectable, and all the more tantalizing  for that.

Tagliolini with porcini and truffle

Tagliolini with porcini and truffle

The next course, a tagliolini featuring truffles and porcini mushrooms was a disappointment. The too-subtle flavor of the truffle was completely overwhelmed by the distinct nuttiness of the porcini. Methinks the robust flavor of European truffles stands up to cream and starch in a way that the newly-discovered Indian truffle apparently cannot. Too many calories for too small a reward.

I’ve heard Caperberry’s confit de canard described as “the best I’ve eaten anywhere in the world” by Someone Who Knows. To learn that I was about to try the famed duck confit further enhanced with a truffle sauce almost made my fall to my knees and give thanks to the Lord. And I’m agnostic.

It was outstanding. The meat was falling off the bone, the skin was crisp, and the flavors deep and rich. Paired with thinly sliced Granny Smith apples and juicy, oven-plumped tomatoes, this was perfection on a plate. And yes, the truffle flavor definitely came through in the sauce – though not quite in all its glory.

Divine dessert

Divine dessert

That was reserved for dessert, the vanilla pannacotta topped with slivers of black truffle. I’m just going to say that the truffle aroma was so strong that it went straight to my head.

Did the dessert actually taste good? Yes. The cool, creamy vanilla was offset beautifully by the pungency of the fungus. I was there for the truffles, and I certainly got what I came for.

The details

Whether you’re a truffle virgin or a curious connoisseur, Caperberry’s Great Indian Truffle promotion is on until 30 Aug 2009, for dinner only. Should you go? In my opinion, yes, definitely give it a shot. With a caveat: calibrate your expectations.

In that vein, things to know before you go:

  • These are not European truffles. They are very mild. Do not expect to smell them a mile off.
  • In fact, it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette. Because truffles are found and harvested in their natural state, they’re inconsistent. Each individual truffle has a different intensity of flavor. If you’re lucky, the one that gets grated over your dish is strong; if not, it’s probably not your day.
  • Therefore, my advice would be to order something you’d enjoy (and not mind shelling out for) even without the truffles (For me, that’d be the duck or the foie gras). If the truffle flavor comes through loud and clear, think of it as food magic. If not, you’ve enjoyed your meal, and while you may feel disappointed, at least you won’t feel cheated.
  • Since these are so mild, keep your palate fresh by avoiding alcohol, no matter what anyone says about truffles and wine.
  • Remember: truffles are about aroma. Some people have a keener sense of smell than others, so may be able to detect flavor when you can’t. This does not mean they are faking; nor does it mean you are a total loser. Get a life!
  • And of course, here’s the Menu and Pricing. All prices are exclusive of taxes.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to write in and tell me what you think!

Caperberry
48/1, Ground Floor, The Estate
No. 121, Dickenson Road,
Bangalore 560 042

Phone: 080 21194567 25594567 (Thank you Anonymous!)

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8 thoughts on “Truffles: Move Over Piedmont, Here Comes Balehonnur

    • Hi there: Thanks for dropping by the blog and alerting me to this. The number has changed: it’s 25594567. I’d mistakenly posted a reply yesterday assuming you were referring to the post about Secret Garden Cafe. My bad!

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