Truffles, luxury and Michelin-starred dining go hand-in-hand, so who better to talk us through the ins and outs of this precious ingredient than Chef de Cuisine of the 3 Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Matt Abé. From the essentials of a ‘what is a truffle?’ to his personal favourites and dishes on the restaurant menu, this is everything you need to know about truffles.
With immaculate table settings and a kitchen producing arguably the most beautiful dishes in London, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is the perfect setting to discuss truffles – an ingredient considered the ultimate luxury by many. But truffles are a bit of a mystery, so let’s start with the basics – what is a truffle? ‘It’s a type of fungus’ says Matt, ‘like mushrooms they grow from spores and develop underground before getting closer to the surface as they mature. The soil in which they grow and the weather can have a huge impact on the quality and quantity. They tend to grow around the bases of trees, oak and hazelnut in particular, as they rely on the nutrients in the soil provided by the tree roots, and need fairly moderate, dry summers but with some rain coming into early autumn. This year has been ok but last year the summer was far too hot. Great for us but not for the truffles!’
There are lots of species of truffle, but the two main types are black and white. ‘Black and white truffles are very different’ Matt explains, both in terms of how they’re grown and the final ingredient. ‘White truffles are 100% wild and can’t be cultivated, whereas black truffles have been successfully farmed all over the world. In terms of flavour, for me the white is more aromatic and you want to always have it raw, I wouldn’t cook with a white truffle as you wouldn’t really notice it in the finished dish. Whereas the beauty with a black truffle is that, yes you can have it raw, but it can also handle cooking and maintain its flavour, it’s a lot more versatile and robust.’
Here, we touch on the crux of why truffles are so expensive; ‘It’s the rarity’ he says. ‘White truffles are the most expensive as it’s completely up to mother nature, but even with the farmed black ones, there’s no guarantees – it’s so dependent on the soil, weather, and the skill and care of the truffle hunter, knowing when and where to find them.’ All truffles are harvested by hand, ‘It’s all dog hunting now as opposed to pigs, the pigs just love the taste of them too much! When they’re mature and ready, the truffles give off pheromones (hormones) that attract the animals, that’s why we’re attracted to the smell too, it’s a chemical reaction. I visited a large truffle farm in Italy where they had over 70,000 trees on one plot – they needed at least 20 trained dogs as they each only have a short attention span; they get bored of hunting after an hour or so. Our supplier, Zak Frost from Wiltshire Truffles, uses labradors when hunting, it’s not so much about the breed of dog but the intense training they need.’
So, you can get truffles in the UK but Matt doesn’t personally use them in the restaurant: ‘There’s only a small supply every year and the English autumn truffles are really subtle in flavour. We tend to get European white truffles in autumn and black truffles in winter to match the seasons, although we have previously also used spring bianchetto truffles – these have a really strong, almost petrol aroma and quite a strong taste, so they go well with spring produce like asparagus and wild garlic. This year as well we used black Australian truffles over the summer for the first time.’ As an Aussie himself, would Matt prefer to cook with his native ingredient? ‘They are just as good – if not better – than the European ones’ he says, ‘but for me it’s more about seasonality. The earthy, rich, comforting nature of truffles means they suit autumn and winter dishes better. We did a great turbot, potato and leek dish over the summer with them, this was still light but had those comforting undertones that truffles need.’
When it comes to restaurant dishes, and cooking with truffles in general, Matt says it’s all about simplicity. ‘With white truffles in particular, I like to keep things simple and classic. Here we’re doing a chestnut linguine with an aged Parmesan velouté – we then shave the white truffles over the pasta at the table for guests. Chestnuts come into season at the same time, so their subtle nutty flavour is a great match, while the Parmesan sauce is just classic, adding richness and saltiness; all mushrooms and fungi love salt, it really brings out their flavour. It’s all about the truffle hitting the hot dish and releasing its full aroma right in front of the guest.’
Linguine is also on the menu when the black truffles arrive later in the year. ‘For this we also do a Parmesan sauce but we serve the pasta with a black truffle emulsion, as well as more truffles shaved on top of course.’ With two such classic dishes, Matt’s Head Sommelier, James Lloyd, was on hand to offer us the perfect wine pairing: ‘White or red Burgundy, both would be fantastic with truffle linguine. You need a good abundance of fruit to balance the salty Parmesan, while a good Burgundy also has enough acidity to counter the rich, creamy sauce. An oak-aged wine will also have just enough body and texture to complement the earthy truffle.’
When considering other dishes, Matt says ‘It needs to be comforting food, it should feel luxurious. Richness and warmth are key, that’s why pasta, potatoes and cheese in particular are good vehicles for truffles but the truffle still remains the star of the show. One of my favourite things to do on the menu is a fondue – we pair the white truffle with Vacherin Mont D’or, potatoes and pickles, and the black truffle with Brie de Meaux, honeycomb, bee pollen and fried bread. It’s the ultimate indulgence for a cheese course.’ Truffles can even work in desserts, although Matt says it’s a hard one to sell to guests sometimes; ‘We’ve done a hazelnut soufflé with a black truffle ice cream, and a hazelnut vanilla millefeuille with white truffle, but it’s just not what people expect.’
Although for Matt, fresh is always best, you won’t always miss out if you miss truffle season. ‘With black truffles you can also preserve them, we often cook and store them in a liquor made with port, Madeira and brandy, sometimes veal stock too, then we can chop them up and use them to make farces (stuffings), sauces and more throughout the year. Otherwise we might make a black truffle condiment, blended with olive oil, balsamic and salt to form the base of a truffle emulsion or purée. We try not to waste anything, the skin of the black truffle can be quite tough and gritty, but we freeze the trim to tenderise it so that it can be used in cooking.’
Matt’s parting advice is to follow your nose: ‘I always choose a truffle by the smell. Our supplier will bring me boxes of truffles and I’ll hand-pick every one we use in the restaurant by the aroma it gives off. Size doesn’t matter, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better!’
Got a taste for truffles now? Good, so have we! Join in our October Truffle Makers celebration across Gordon Ramsay Restaurants, you’ll find everything from truffle burgers and pizzas to panna cottas and cocktails on the menu, plus special truffle events and more. If you’re lucky enough to have a truffle at home, get cooking with the best truffle recipes.
You can also try Matt’s truffle dishes for yourself by booking a table at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.