Thursday, 3 November 2011

Seasonal Treats

White truffles from Alba
Around this time of year Chinese people get excited over hairy crab. Aficionados debate the merits of eating a female crustacean over a male one as it's all about the roe than the little bits of meat people pick out of with a series of tools. There's the ginger sauce that goes with it as well as the Chinese wine with a preserved plum in it to counteract the coolness.

The steamed crabs are eaten with a lot of ceremony and tradition.

As the crabs cannot be farmed, so each year the numbers vary. This year there aren't many crabs, but I've heard they are of a high quality.

Meanwhile the Italians also look forward to this period with the appearance of white truffles.

Truffles shaved on top of veal cheek agnolotti
They grow near the roots of oak trees and it requires dogs and pigs to sniff them out. However the forests are public domain and it's a game of finders keepers. The competition for white truffles -- the bigger the better -- is so tough that some truffle hunters resort to violent acts -- like killing an adversary's truffle dog -- as revenge for what they believe is stealing.

While the truffles may look like potatoes, they are pungent. A colleague asked me to describe what they smelled like and I didn't know where to begin except to say they are earthy.

They are usually kept with arborio rice and eggs in the same container so that they can absorb the truffle flavour.

White truffles are best eaten with the simplest of dishes -- a fried egg or pasta with butter.

Risotto with Piedmont cheeses, chanterelles and truffles
Then the ceremony begins with the white truffle shaved table side and the earthy aroma engulfs the senses.

One of my most memorable encounters with white truffles was many years ago at Grissini in the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, where I had a fried sunny side up egg with truffles shaved on top. It was absolutely heavenly. Another dish was a simple risotto flavoured with the truffles. Amazing.

Since then I've been thinking about them every late October and November. And now a decade later I was very lucky to try them again last night at 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo in Central. A delegation from Piedmont, Italy was there and brought with them some white truffles from Alba.

The truffles were quite large and pungent too when released from their glass case. The excited maitre d' ceremoniously shaved the truffles onto each of our plates, four courses that included roast lobster, veal cheek agnolotti, risotto and beef tenderloin.

The thinly-sliced truffles graced our plates like giant light brown snowflakes that enhanced the flavours of each dish.
Beef tenderloin with chestnut and porcini ragout with truffles

If you ask me to choose between hairy crab and white truffles, the latter wins hands down.

Honestly I have yet to appreciate all the tedious work that goes into deconstructing a small crab when shaved white truffles on a bed of risotto is utterly satisfying.

But not all is lost -- I'll try some hairy crabs next week and let you know if my conclusion has to be amended.

In the meantime viva tartufo bianco!

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