Wednesday, May 16, 2007
What's wrong with truffle oil???
In this weeks edition of The New York Times De Gustibus Daniel Patterson of Coi restaurant in San Francisco examine the use of truffle oil in an article titled, "Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles" With pictures of standard chemistry glassware in tow a first glance of the piece would give you the impression that The Times was bestowing great praise once again on the most un-approachable cuisines in the likes of el bulli, moto, or Aliena. Quite on the contrary, this essay goes on to mark the true fresh truffle as a supreme elitist food, and any product that has similar effects on the olfactories of diners as frauds, and the chef’s who use them as perpetrators of and evil plot.
It is very interesting to note that the quality press and interest that molecular gastronomy has garnered in the past few years has gone a long way to change peoples perspectives on how things should taste, look, and feel, as these are the exact qualities that most MG chefs manipulate in order to shock dinners. For instance at moto, the menu is edible, and in theory has flavors relative to the items described. Quite a shock to anyone who thought they came in for a sheet of seaweed wrapped around rice with raw fish inside. After considering instances like this I don’t think the average dinner who is aware of such gastronomic anomalies will be at the least troubled with the chemical make up of truffle oil.
Truffle oil has come a long way, not necessarily the product itself, but the way chefs have used it. Remember that one cold Christmas in the late 80's where every little girl on the planet wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid Doll, well, by the mid 90's chef’s had the same type of affinity toward truffle oil. We put it on everything, and lots of it, and we told everyone where we put it proudly. Some chef’s actually mixed expensive fresh truffles with the oil, or tried to pass off oil alone mixed with other fresh mushrooms as truffles, as noted in the De Gustibus piece. While I was fresh in the kitchen at this time, I followed directions and went through a lot of truffle oil before I ever so much as laid eyes on a fresh truffle. The first time I handled a fresh truffle I had a good 4 years of truffle oil experience under my belt, and I was very unimpressed with the $150 a pound dirtball that arrived in a brown paper bag lined with rice. It was at this point that someone explained to me the exclusiveness of the truffle, why it was so special, all the truffle products that are available, and what truffle oil was. In total agreement with the facts put forth by Daniel Patterson, truffle oil is a chemical compound and oil that has the aroma of truffles.
It is only with the past 3 or 4 years that I’ve grown into a chef who is experienced enough to have a light hand with the truffle oil. I find a few drops here or there go a long way in any dish, and the aroma is much more pleasant when it shares the spotlight with another ingredient, most obviously other mushrooms. I’ve come to use it so sparingly, except in a Vinaigrette, that I rarely feel the need to even mention it’s use. That said, I think it is a wonderful product and the use of it should not be admonished on the bases of it’s chemical nature. Everything is chemicals you see, that is what molecular gastronomy is teaching us, this is something Daniel Patterson seem to be forgetting. This chemical with the aroma of truffles is harmless health wise, even economicly it has not in any way replaced the use of fresh truffles as every year the prize truffles are more and more expensive. Once again, if we can infuse paper to taste like a maki roll, then how is it that truffle oil is fake and evil.
The expense of truffles pre truffle oil lead it to be a local, highly prized delicacy as pointed out by Daniel Patterson. Only the finest restaurant with the highest priced plates could afford to import truffles to the states for discerning dinners here. "Truffle oil has simultaneously democratized and cheapened the truffle experience," this statement is taken directly from the text of the De Gustibus piece. This seems to be quite the elitist foodie statement. I don’t think there is anything wrong with making high priced ingredient more accessible to a majority of dinners. Even if the experience of these ingredients might suffer in authenticity, I think this makes the real thing even that much more special. Let’s examine a parallel situation where name brand Tylenol is a fresh truffle, and CVS brand acetaminophen is truffle oil. I ask you this, is the experience of pain relief "democratized and cheapened" by the fact a generic brand is available at a fraction of the cost??? In this light I think it is ridiculous to challenge any chef who is honest and knowledgeable with regards to the use of truffle oil