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Tue 25 Sep 2007 04:00 AM

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A chef's best friend

Known as chef's diamond, Alba's winter white truffle is one of the most exclusive ingredients found in the kitchen.

One of the food world's most exclusive natural products, the white truffle, whose official name is Tuber Magnatum Pico is a firm favourite among chefs worldwide.

Known as the chef's diamond, it is highly sought after, with a limited shelf life and only available during the short winter months. Oh yes, and with a very hefty price tag.

We [chefs] love using white truffle because it is so unique and the aroma is fantastic” Luigi Gerosa, executive chef, Burj Al Arab

"Usually, the price for 1kg of white truffle is approximately AED14,400 (US $3900), but of course this varies depending on the size, shape, texture and dryness," comments Kai Eick, chef de cuisine, Traiteur, Park Hyatt Dubai.

Expecting to offer the product from mid-October to mid-December this year, the Park Hyatt Dubai will begin to look at menu ideas this month for the hotel's fine-dining restaurant Traiteur, but the final decision on what dishes will eventually be served depends on the availability of and demand for certain products from its customers.

"Traiteur diners as a general rule have good knowledge of exclusive and expensive products," says Eick.

"They also travel the world trying different cuisines, so it is a popular product among our diners."

Sourcing the truffle Found in Alba - which is located in the Langhe area of Piedmont in northern Italy - the white truffle is practically impossible to cultivate and grows underground in a symbiotic relationship with a variety of trees, including oak, poplar, hazelnut and beech. It is said that the harder the tree's wood, the better and more intense the truffle's perfume and, therefore, its flavor.

White truffles are sought by a dedicated network of truffle hunters, called trifulao, who comb the Langhe for it. As with the black truffle, hunters once used sows to sniff out the delicacies, but specially-trained dogs are now more common. Hunters have found the dogs are just as effective, and do not have a fondness for eating any truffles they find.

The quality and availability of truffles varies depending on the weather, species and age of the tree, soil type and proximity to the roots and tree trunk.

"The availability varies each year," comments chef Luigi Gerosa, executive chef at the Burj Al Arab. "But because there are a number of factors, you cannot know what the quality or cost [of winter white truffle] will be so far in advance," Gerosa adds.
White truffles are a popular ingredient at the Burj Al Arab, and in order to ensure that only the top quality truffles are sourced, chefs from the hotel visit Alba once the season begins."We love using white truffle because it is so unique and the aroma is fantastic. It also carries a lot of prestige as it is a high quality food item that diners at the Burj Al Arab enjoy and appreciate," he adds.

Italian chefs at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh will also visit Italy to source white truffles, working directly with the local suppliers in order to guarantee delivery of only top quality tubers.

Middle East Trading is one supplier in the region that guarantees top quality. Demand for truffles has increased dramatically in the UAE over the past few years. Middle East Trading sold more than 60kg of winter white truffle last year, compared to just 3kg four years ago and expects this figure to increase even more in coming years.

The key ingredient with its strong flavour, most chefs agree that the white truffle should always be the main focal point of any dish. Chef Gerosa has commented that the truffles' distinctive flavour can be overpowering, so any accompaniments should be chosen very carefully.

In particular, Gerosa suggests the traditional, simple preparation of shaved truffles over soft scrambled eggs or homemade pastas like taglierini and tagliatelle. To accompany the dish, he suggests wine from Italy, with grapes like Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebiolo ideal.

Truffles are also well complimented by non-alcoholic beverages. In Saudi Arabia, Marcel Brixel, executive sous chef at Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, serves truffle dishes with non-alcoholic sparkling date wine and grape juice.

Predicting the first shipment of winter white truffle will arrive in December, Brixel says the hotels' Italian restaurant will offer the ingredient through a number of promotions, including multi-course set meals, with Alba truffles the key feature of each course.

"The truffle will be the base ingredient. For example, we may offer a winter white truffle pannacotta. But we will also be offering it across an eclectic menu, so we may use it as part of a miso and truffle broth, for example," suggests Brixell.

Like chef's Gerosa and Eick, Brixel says the hotel will charge customers by the gram. Taking weighing scales to the table, customers will request their desired amount, which will then be shaved off of the truffle and placed on their food.

For the moment though, the cost of the 2007-2008 truffles is unknown, and prices will generally vary on a day-to-day basis throughout the truffle season. Last year, a truffle auction held at the Castle of Grinzane Cavour in Italy, and linked via satellite with Hong Kong and Paris, saw the sale of the most expensive truffle in the world. The 1.51kg Alba white truffle sold for $160,000.

"You can make a profit with winter white truffle. It is very expensive but people are aware of this, and those that purchase it can afford it and enjoy eating it. But for the chef as well, it is an amazing and versatile product to use," adds Brixel.

Truffle grades

Super extra:The largest and best truffle. Almost the size of a grapefruit they are extremely rare and therefore are extremely expensive.

Extra grade:
Approximately twice the size of a walnut, these oblong-shaped truffles are popular with restaurants and make up around 10% of total truffle crops.

First choice:
The most commonly found an affordable; they are a lower grade of truffle. Varying in size, they are generally the size of large berries.

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