Eating The White Diamond

This white diamond is a white truffle from Alba, Italy.

Four years ago, I ate the Black Diamond, a black truffle, and today I’m eating its fairer counterpart, the white truffle. It’s from Piedmont in Italy’s Alba region and is in season there only from October to December.

It’s really the mystique surrounding a truffle that accounts for its hallowed stature among food lovers, and of course, its rarity. Truffle cultivation has eluded humankind, although there are reports of China-made truffles of which “Gnarly, nasty things!” are the current verdicts. Truffles are a present from nature, a spontaneous sprouting of fungus. And at well over $2,000 a pound, these are some pricey-ass mushrooms.

But chefs adore them, including Old Manila’s Chef de Cuisine Samuel Linder at The Peninsula Manila. For the ongoing White Alba Truffles promotion at the restaurant, he’s got every single one of these white nuggets under airtight lock – of an airtight jar, that is. “I keep these truffles in a jar of Arborio rice and then after three days, I use the [now fragrant] rice in the risotto that we serve,” he says, caressing them like gold. “Here, have a whiff.”

Truffles possess an aroma unlike anything else and all the adjectives attributed to it are true: heady, musky, intoxicating, etc. It smells like a symmetry between soil and earth and fallen rain and aw heck, why not, like the skin of someone most loved (and lusted for).

Lunch today is with two good friends, Garch and Katrina. The appetizer of Smoked Wagyu Beef Carpaccio with softly-poached quail eggs embodies what I consider to be a truffle’s perfect partner: eggs. The yolk breaks apart in my mouth at the slightest nudging, flooding its golden treasure. Its thickness is a foil for the beef’s smoky saltiness; it’s so soft that teeth tear through it. A tapenade of black olives and truffles – oh so little of the latter! – dot each egg. A spear fashioned out of beets lends a sweetly earthy finish.

An agnolotti is a ravioli in the shape of a half moon, and today we’re served a version of it stuffed with veal cheek. It tastes richly of wine and a demi-glace pointed up with sparse shavings of truffle atop. I like the sage butter sauce that the dish is lavished with. “Why so scanty?” Garch asks Chef Sam with a joking tsk tsk as the latter garnishes our dishes with truffle shavings. As the hotel’s Director of Public Relations, Garch and Chef Sam enjoy a friendship marked by plenty of good-natured ribbing. “Because you were here yesterday and I can’t waste any more of my truffles on you,” the chef chuckles in reply.

Katrina, who is perusing the menu, reads that any dish can be ‘enhanced with additional truffle shavings for P850/gram.’ “And how many shavings make up a gram?” She asks the chef. “About 10, give or take,” Chef Sam answers while giving Katrina’s dish its allocated number of truffle shavings. I think I can almost see him counting each stroke. Ah, such precious treasure!

Between courses, Chef Sam sits with us and our little quartet contemplates the chef’s truffle accoutrements, a most enviable collection. There’s his truffle shaver, a wooden plank affixed with a steel blade. Truffle salt – “Ooh Lori, you must smell this!” Katrina beckons to me excitedly. Truffle oil, which we all agree is currently being misused and abused, sometimes by adding too much to a dish (hello, truffled mac ‘n’ cheese) for example; and a bottle of Chef Sam’s homemade version of truffle oil. “These are truffle trimmings that I keep in a bottle of olive oil. I change the oil every few days and use it in our dishes here at Old Manila.”

The main course of Slow-Cooked Duck Breast from Rougie (France’s oldest producer of fresh duck) is made extra special for me because of the mushroom risotto. Made from the grains of rice that Chef Sam buries his truffles in, the risotto’s creaminess is enhanced by the firmness of its rice. Though the truffle’s presence is but a whisper, it makes the dish all that more special to me. I savor every spoonful alternating with tastes of the duck dipped in the cranberry jus and the Brussels sprouts confit for crunch.

Interestingly, I feel that the treasured taste of truffle was most prominent in the final dish, the cheese course. Here, a round of goats cheese was touched with torched sugar, its resulting crown of brown is representative of its molten sweetness. To its left is a blueberry compote, its scarlet juices stark on the white plate. And sitting silent on the other side is a scoop of crème fraiche anointed with vanilla. Running a ring around this composition is a trail of truffle honey. Chef Sam instructs us to get a bit of all three components and then touch it with the honey before eating. An initial burst of sweetness is followed by the faintest of truffle tastes, the musky mellowness of the cheese, a squeal of sour sweetness from the berries, and then the rounding out from the crème fraiche.

At meal’s end, Garch, Katrina, and I are settling into that lull following a good meal shared with friends. We notice that Chef Sam has left his jar of truffles-in-rice on the table. We wonder aloud if he would notice if one of the nuggets went missing. “My god, what I’d do for just one truffle,” I muse with envy. As my hand, seemingly of its own accord, snakes toward the jar, Chef Sam happens to appear from nowhere and snaps up his jar. “Oops, almost forgot about this one. Can’t have any of you walking away with it,” he says pointedly. As he walks away, he turns back and winks at us.


White Alba Truffles at Old Manila
Ongoing for lunch and dinner until November 23, 2011.
A la carte service or have the White Alba Truffle Degustation featured in this post.
Truffle menu here.
For inquiries or reservations, call (02) 887.2888
The Peninsula Manila
Corner of Ayala and Makati Avenues, Makati.

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