Monday, November 21, 2011
Ode to the Black Truffle
'I don't remember the first time I encountered a truffle. And that's probably because it was unmemorable. For most of us, the first truffle experience comes in the form of a black speck in a slice of foie gras or as a tastless, overcooked disk floating in a bowl of soup. And we say to ourselves, almost in relief, 'Just another rare and expensive ingredient I don't have to care about'. We put it on the 'life list' and forget about it', so says Patricia Wells, the 'talented ambassador for the truffle'.
But Wells' quote is to get the cart ahead of the horse, so by way of introduction, let me say that last night was not the normal Sunday evening in the Wilson abode. Instead of a simple Sunday supper, Malacy and I, together with our dear friends Jennifer and John Keller, were among the fifty or so lucky people who made their pilgrimage to Lakepark Bistro to honour Patricia Wells, the Milwaukee native-turned-expat-Grande dame of French cooking, and to sample delicacies from her new cookbook, Simply Truffles: Recipes & Stories That Capture the Essence of the Black Diamond, which was released last week.
As we sipped Champagne and let our noses capture the delicate aromas released into the room from the truffle-themed dishes being created in the kitchen, Madame Wells gave a lovely little mini-lecture on the history of the 'black diamond', the tuber melanosporum. Her knowledge and passion for French cuisine and its most famous fungal accountrement is matched only by her charm and quick wit.
When I acknowledged the elephant in the room, i.e., the limited availability and the high cost associated with genuine truffles Stateside, she was quick to offer two practical guidelines.
First, shop around on the web for the best price, that is, don't buy from some flagship gastronomique shop in Paris or from some fine food purveyor on Madison Avenue in New York. Rather, check around and find the best deal on fresh truffles. The closing pages of her book offers no less than nine purveyors of the black truffle (p. 199). A quick search (more searching will yield a better price) for me revealed 4 oz. of fresh Burgundy truffles (tuber uncinatum) going for $500 in Paris and New York, but for $135 at Alma Gourmet in Queens, New York.
Now, of course $130 for a four ounce truffle is quite a bit of money (yikes, aye?). However, Patricia proved to us that 4 oz. is more than enough to create a multi-course feast for four people, which means, we're only talking about ponying up $35 per person. And while I know $35 per person is a significant investment, I can also promise it's easier to spend more than that on going out somewhere on something sub-par (e.g., two drinks, plus an appetizer, salad, entree and dessert is easily more than $35)! From wasting money on subpar food that robs us of so much joy, Good Lord deliver us! But I digress.
Her second point to my comment is related to the first. Once the little gem arrives in the mail, nothing is wasted. After peeling away some of the skin and before using a mandolin to slice the truffle, the skin should be finely minced and added to fresh whipped butter, which itself can be sliced into small portions and frozen for use throughout the year (think 'Spaghetti With Parmesan & Truffle Butter' on pg. 119 in the book). Fresh truffles, moreover, can be stored together with cracked eggs in a sealed container that keeps either from touching. The aromas from the truffle will permeate the eggs, and who wouldn't want a dozen eggs -- poached, fried or scrambled -- that were infused with black truffle?
The point is simple: a little truffle goes a long, long way, and we must remove from our minds the spurious notion that truffles are only for garnishing the plates of the rich and famous. Truffles are for anyone who wants to enhance their joie de vivre.
Now, here's the theological link. Hold on to your hats and hold on to your theological presuppositions when I tell you that the truffle -- its efficacy, learning to stretch its versatility and the joy that comes from being in its presence -- is somewhat analogous to our Saviour's Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar. And, oh yeah, I know that all metaphors, allegories, analogies and illustrations, when pushed, collapse at some point, especially in the face Ultimate Truth. And, oh yeah, I know that comparing the Most Blessed Sacrament to a fungus may rub some the wrong way. But hold on and hear me out.
If we think of the truffle not as some little fancy over-priced scarcity reserved only for the rich and think, instead, of it as something that is truly delicious, something worth acquiring, something worth stretching out so that we receive the most from every little bite, I believe we're getting closer to my analogy. If we think, moreover, of the truffle not as some silly fungus hidden on a tree trunk but as something simple and earthy that God wants us to seek and enjoy, something truly delicious and something to share, we are getting closer.
I'm saying, albeit circumlocutorily, that Mass is usually too short, too contrived and too much of a logistical nightmare to really contemplate the riches of Christ's Real Presence among His faithful people. We may be there physically, time tends to stand still, the chasm between heaven and earth are bridged, all the Saints in concert sing (thank you, Wesley) and we truly feed on Christ in the Sacrament. But to be such a big deal -- yes, it's that big of a deal, folks -- it's sure over pretty quickly, no? You know the feeling; the usher comes by, you get up, go to rail, kneel, receive Communion and exit stage right. You sit down, you pray and it's over. 'Up, down, turn around' is what I'm keen to call it.
I'm saying that our time spent truly 'communing' with Christ in the Eucharist is far too short for us to receive the fullness of joy that comes from the Numinous One deigning to sup with us. I'm saying that although we receive the 'most precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ', we sure seem to forget that what just happened was nothing less than 'the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life' (Book of Common Prayer, p. 860).
I'm saying that our usual experiences at Mass serve as a stark contrast to the disciples' encounter on the road to Emmaus (St. Luke 24:13-35), when, after having spent the better part of a seven-mile walk with the Risen Jesus, their eyes were finally opened to the Messiah in their midst, and they were left only to say, 'Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road'! Their hearts burned because they were united to the flame of Christ's Most Sacred Heart, the burning heart of radiant love that rescues us from sin and death and gives us new life! Their hearts burned because the encounter was prolonged, that is, stretched beyond their normal realm of meaning-making; it wasn't simply over and done. And we must note that the blessings they experienced were more than transformative for a minute or two; St. Luke tells us this prolonged encounter led them back to Jerusalem where 'with great joy' they 'were continually in the temple blessing God'. Such is the efficacy of the Eucharist, the primary means by which we are spiritually fed.
Their joy, dear ones, is the joy of the one who marvels at Christ on the Altars of His holy Church! Their joy is the joy of the one who stretches the encounter, the one who, 'down in adoration falling', joins all the company of heaven as they cry: 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!'
And this joy, of which the truffle is only a mere shadow, is the delight of those who, above all, cherish our Saviour's promise: 'I am the Bread of Life. He who eats of this Bread will live forever. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him' (John 6:55-56).
Amen, I say, amen!
P.S. Go out and get a copy of Patricia's new book and start cooking with truffles!