Truffle Hunting

I clearly underestimated the time and effort required to research, source, taste and report on some 4,000 wines per year, a high level description of what I have to do in my job. I had very good intentions to write plenty of Hedonists' Gazette articles in between, but as they say, cemeteries are full of good intentions... After all, what's better than sharing great wines and superb food with your friends other than letting others know so they die of envy? Anyway, now that I'm supposed to have some summer holidays I have a little more time, time that I'm going to partially use to catch up and tell you about (some of) the things we ate and the bottles we drunk during the winter. I'll try to keep a better and more constant rhythm next season, but for now, here we go...

What would you think if one of your old mates from primary school was the CEO of Arotz, one of the largest producer of truffles on earth? That it cannot be a coincidence, right? That it must be some kind of signal from the sky, right? That you're surely destined to consume large quantities of truffles, right? Well, that's what happened to me, and those were the questions that came to my head. The answers to all of them were, of course, YES, so that's what I'm telling you about today.

The story goes like this: someone back in 1970 had the idea to create a large truffle farm. For seven years they planted 614 hectares of poor, chalk-rich soils in the forests of Soria with 150,000 Holm oaks inoculated with black truffles in their roots! Is that crazy or what? The idea might seem a little loony today, so imagine how it was nearly 50 years ago! We're talking, of course, about proper black truffles, tuber melanosporum. It took years for the trees to grow and to start yielding the precious black diamonds. Some took longer than others, some have never produced a single truffle in all these years and nobody knows why.

In 1990 the company was purchased by Ebro, a sugar company that is now a large multinational firm called Ebro Foods, following the mergers and acquisitions after the turn of the century and is the world leader in the supply of rice and the second world manufacturer of pasta! Today Arotz, part of Ebro, is the largest truffle supplier in the world, serving restaurants all over the world. From the end of November until the end of March—sometimes exceptionally in May—they harvest their truffles from the forest of cold Soria with the help of 12 well-trained dogs.

Boots, hat and gloves, and off we go. A couple of hours drive north of Madrid and we are in the province of Soria where the local flora is pines, Holm oaks (Encinas) and junipers (Sabinas).

The specially trained dogs are the best way to find the truffles; you might hear about pigs, but they eat the truffles...and are much harder to control than dogs. The pigs would eat the truffles and they'd even eat your hand if they had the chance to do so! Even though all the trees should be capable of producing truffles, it's a little random, and with such a vast extension, it's impossible to find where one has developed and is ripe enough for being picked. The dog cruises the field with his nose close to the ground until it detects the aroma: it stops, marks the place with its paw and waits for its reward, something to eat from his trainer. He gives something to the dog, marks the place with a GPS and kneels down.

Truffles have a certain magic, they generate a special magnetic attraction. They are mysterious, rare, expensive, unobtainable and somehow mythical, in a way like dragons, words that call everybody's attention. There's an obvious fascination, a certain mystery and somehow a romantic view of the truffle hunting experience. Let me tell you, when you get down to it, there's nothing glamorous about it. In fact it's rather boring as well as cold and perhaps wet. The process is quite slow and repetitive. After a couple of hours it starts snowing lightly; the dogs cannot smell with the snow so soon we are all relieved form our tasks. Great! That's the moment we had been waiting for!

We headed for La Lobita, a restaurant in the 865-inhabitant village of Navaleno, for a special truffle menu. I had selected some wines that I thought would do well with truffles, without really knowing what we were going to eat. In general aged reds with earthy aromas are a good match for truffles. My friend José Ignacio had selected some truffles that were delivered to the restaurant to complement the normal amount usually served with the menu to make it...let's call it close to being obscene!

We decided to drink the wines in reverse order, meaning from older to younger, as the older would be more fragile and should do better with starters, and the younger are more powerful and appropriate for main dishes. Anyway, the first wine was a surprise from our birth year, 1965, which many consider the worst vintage ever! We uncorked a bottle of 1965 Monte Real Rioja Gran Reserva from Bodegas Riojanas, which I had already tasted before and it did not disappoint, especially given the (low) expectations for such lousy vintage. This bottle was again quite spectacular: 'bad vintages' never cease to amaze me. Those grapes that never got fully ripe, those green aromas and high acidity often hold the wines for years after the riper, more famous vintages have faded. This was lean and sharp, fresh and complex with acidity and autumn flavors and aromas (YES, it smelled of truffles and it was NOT influenced by the context!), quite light on the palate, acting as a cleanser and getting you ready for the next bite. (Sorry, I haven't started talking about the food yet and I'm already on the next bite.)

We had been playing with the special corkscrew for old bottles (The Durand, highly recommended even if frightfully expensive) and the mandolin...slicing truffles, trying to get them thinner than the others, with the wine already in our glasses. I had clear expectations about the wine, but didn't have any idea about the food. The first dish arrived: False truffle in its habitat with foie gras leaves. It was the landscape that we had seen in the morning replicated on the plate! Through different techniques products were presented in the shape of others with a combination of ingredients resembling the earthy, mushroomy aromas of the autumn forest: nuts, dehydrated fruits, sausages, grains and a rabbit and duck pâté were the ingredients here, a dish that, for once, didn't have any truffle in it, but had the taste of it. The freshness of the Rioja was ideal to cut through the richness of the pâté.
The truffle landscape... minus the truffle!

I had had the luck to have secured a small parcel of the 1974 Scala Dei, the first wine ever released under the appellation Priorat. I thought I'd only open them on very special occasions. Let me tell you, I only have one or two left which means I must have had a lot of special occasions...

By the time the second dish arrived, I knew that we were in for a real treat: beef carpaccio with salad, Soria cheese, pomegranate, truffle vinaigrette and quince. There were a lot of ingredients in the dish, but they were in harmony, each one adding texture or flavors that complemented the others. We popped the second wine which I thought would go well with the meat. The 1974 Priorat from Scala Dei is an historical wine—yes, the appellation was only created that year—and Scala Dei was the only working winery there at the time. Masía Barril followed soon. The Scala Dei was clearly Garnacha-based, fully mature by now, with polished tannins and some heady flavors of cherries in liqueur, ripe and warm, considerably rounder and more Mediterranean than the Rioja. The good news is that the winery, after some ups and downs seems to be back at the top producing profound and true to their roots wines from their high-altitude, old-vine Garnacha vineyards on chalk-rich soils.
Starflower and peppers escorted by classical truffle-loving ingredients: potatoes and egg.

Vegetables are never easy with wine, and are even more challenging with reds. I'm not sure if what in Spain we call borraja is eaten in other parts of the world. The dish was called winter Starflower (according to the dictionary also borago, borraja in Spain), potato, free range egg and candied pepper. If the Priorat was somehow historical, so to me was the 1989 Hermitage Rouge from Jean-Louis Grippat. He retired and sold everything to Guigal who now produces his Hermitage Ex Voto from Grippat's vineyards (and the St. Joseph Lieu Dit St. Joseph is also sourced from Grippat's granitic vineyards in Mauves). This bottle was superb, with pungent, focused aromas and flavors—really intense, fresh and ripe at the same time—with telltale notes of raspberry leaves, violets and smoked bacon—textbook northern Rhône descriptors. There was no problem with the vegetables which mostly added some crunchiness and freshness to the creamy thickness of the egg yolk and the potatoes. The two ingredients are, of course, part of the classical combination with truffles.

We had three glasses of red wine to keep us going through the food; the next dish was a delicious version of pasta alla carbonara Soria-style, which meant it was bound together with foie gras and cheese, had tiny deep-fried pork scratchings and of course boatloads of shaved truffles on top. Pasta is one of the classical dishes to enjoy truffles with: when sliced really thin and heated up (by some pasta, scrambled eggs or other hot foods), they release their aromas which filled the room immediately. It's just the simple dishes that keep you going back to them over and over again—even more so if you had as much truffle to put on them as you liked.
How about this for unorthodox: pig's ear and cod. With truffles, of course!

Next in line was some "surf and turf," an unorthodox combination of meat and seafood, in this case some offal (pig's ears) with some classical fish, cod, cooked in a kind of stew with a garnish of some rather light chickpeas, stewed ear with cod and chickpea foam. It might seem like a strange combination but the contrast of flavors and textures really worked. Both pork's ear and cod are quite gelatinous with intense but subtle flavors and the truffle added the perfect earthiness which was very much in sync with the touch added by the chickpeas. Very haute cuisine, I might add.
A twist on the traditional meatballs and white rice dish, gamier and more refined.

I had been searching for older reds in my cellar, but in the current chaos of bottles I have I couldn't find any red Burgundy older than the 2002 Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Combottes, which was not bad but seemed more advanced than it should be, as if the wine was older and also warmer than your average Côte de Nuits 2002. Perhaps the bottle had suffered some heat...this wine from the earthy village of Gevrey comes from one of the best 1er Crus there, a vineyard that is priced (and considered as good or) above some of the Grand Crus and from one of my favorite vintages for reds in the region. In that context it was quite a disappointment. The wine itself was just perfect for the main course—it all depends on your expectations—the others were perfectly happy and were wondering what was up with me pulling faces there... What shouldn't really be called 'main course' in the context of this feast was a plate of Small lamb meatballs—actually tiny!—with pork jowl in Perigord sauce and rice vermicelli, another popular dish executed with rigor and precision and elevated to the gastronomical heights with some unusual additions. A modern version of a classical, meatballs and white rice, with the intense and gamier flavor of the lamb and the richness of the pork fat complemented by the Perigord sauce while the vermicelli added the rice touch with a lighter texture.

The NV AVREO Tarragona Semi-Dulce was an old bottle, must have been from the 1970s or before, and when bottled the wine was already quite old. This is a wine that is still bottled today, from an old solera. It is a semi-sweet wine produced in the surroundings of Priorat with white grapes and aged in an oxidative way for many years in well-seasoned large oak barrels. The wine is only moderately sweet and is fortified to around 20% alcohol and it is heady and intense with notes of nuts, honey and spices, and a volatile whiff. The descriptors included many of the ingredients found in the dessert as if it had been carefully chosen to match. Completely out of fluke!
Cheese, nuts and honey dessert.

It went perfectly well with the almond cheese, truffle mead and false walnut rocks as the nutty flavors of the wine mingled with the actual nuts in the dessert and the acidity of the wine cut through the richness of the cheese, all coated by generous flavors of honey balanced by some bitterness from the wine. Wine and food seemed made for each other.
Raspberry chocolate truffles. Literally.

There was no way we were going to finish without some (raspberry) chocolate truffles with our coffees, and we still mingled over some other sweet bites—delicious almond cookies with butter ice cream!—as we finished the AVREO like we hadn't eaten in weeks. This remarkable menu—minus the excess of truffle we had and without wines, of course—was offered at the surprisingly low price of €50. They change the menu every year with the new truffle season, something they have been doing since 2003, so next year will be different. The level of sophistication and quality was incredibly high, truly awesome, quite incredible for such a small place lost in the middle of Soria. There's a joke in Spain about Soria not really existing and being simply an invention found in books, as they say there's nothing remarkable there—well, I can say they are wrong! I cannot recommend a visit to La Lobita strongly enough. Like the fans of all these TV series, I'm already looking forward to the new season...
We hadn't noticed, but it had been snowing outside!

So absorbed were we in our truffles, dishes and wines that we had hardly realized that it had continued snowing quite heavily. The streets and the roofs were white and there was a curtain of flakes incessantly falling everywhere. We started panicking a bit, as we had to go through a mountain pass which might get closed or would require chains on your wheels to get back home. Off we went, and with another signal from the sky, without noticing it, the GPS took us through a longer route where the sun was shining and there were no mountain passes...aren't truffles magic?

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