The Great Truffle Scuffle
Does your worst recent food faux par beat this?
Picture the scene. A famous French chef has flown to California for one week to give a series of classes at a private cooking school. With him is his wife who among other things is a recognized expert, in France, on Colette.
The pair have a hotel in the Loire Valley well known for its food and wine.
The second dish on the menu they’re prepping on a sunny Tuesday morning for a dozen women who have come to learn, eat, drink and make merry, is Gaufre de Pomme de Terre à la Truffe fraîche, Moelle de Bœuf et Salsifis or to put it in English, which sounds so mundane by comparison, doesn’t it? — “light potato waffle with bone marrow, salsify (a type of parsnip imported, seasonally, from Belgium) and fresh truffle”.
The truffles have come from France with the chef. They’re in a glass container that’s being passed around reverentially so we can put our noses in and sniff appreciatively. At some point, the jar is passed to one of the students. She savors the smell and gives it to the woman next to her — who drops it.
As it’s about to bounce or crash, the woman grabs it, but too late to avert disaster.
There is truffle all over the floor.
What would you do? I think I may have died of mortification.
But, you know how people are. “The floor can’t be as bad as where they’ve come from,” someone rationalized.
Indeed. Probably routed out of some fetid patch of damp earth by a pig’s snout. With this and with much ado to detail, every bit was retrieved. And the party continued.
Winter vegetables are roots. Summer vegetables are leaves. —Marie-Christine Clément
The pleasures of food go way beyond the cooking and the eating of it. Take this morning, for instance. Not one of us needed to go to France to eat French food, drink French wine and enjoy the countryside of the Loire Valley. Culinary armchair travel, one might call it.
Chef Didier Clemént was in Alameda, California, as guest teacher at Weezie Mott’s cooking school. He and his wife, Marie-Christine Clément, who travels with a selection of the coffee table books she’s authored, including lushly photographed volumes on Colette’s garden and Colette’s kitchen, as well as a grand lifestyle volume on novelist and feminist George Sand, and her most recent publication, a small, tastefully designed book on vegetables.
So far it’s available in French, with a title that translates into English as “the pumpkin is a shipwrecked moon” and in Italian, where the title translates as “the secret voice of the vegetable garden,” which is what the book, as Marie-Christine explains it, is about.
“We’re having an obesity problem in France, same as in the United States,” said Marie-Christine. “If you just give nutritional information, it doesn’t make sense.” And forcing children to eat green vegetables, like spinach, often adds to their loathing.
So Marie-Christine has tried to put meaning into the vegetable by emphasizing the reciprocal relationship. For example, if you think you don’t like green veggies but come to understand they’re helping you grow as an adult — well, we’ll have to wait for it in English.
It was only a couple of years ago that international travelers Weezie Mott, 86, and Howard Mott, 90, gave up a longtime by-public-request venture, Motoring with The Motts. This involved taking small groups on food and wine jaunts to Europe.
Weezie, a demon in the kitchen who has taught scores of children and adults the pleasures and skills of cooking, cites their respective ages for giving up this retirement venture. During their trips and the many years they lived abroad, in Italy and Turkey, among other countries, they befriended people like Marie-Christine and Didier. “She is like my grandmother,” said Marie-Christine. “When our daughter wanted to learn English, Weezie said, ‘Send her to us,’ and we did.”
Weezie’s passion is introducing people to new taste experiences. The Cléments were last in the Bay Area teaching with her three years ago. They are among several European chefs who come to guest classes. Most of the students are regulars. Some have been coming for years.
The Cléments Grand Hôtel du Lion d’Or in the Loire Valley, south of Paris, is in a small town called Romorantin-Lanthenay. The surrounding area, we learned today, is pretty wild. The forest nearby has been the hunting ground of kings. The building that houses their hotel, famous for its food and wine, dates back to the 16th century.
They get wild fruit and wild herbs from the forest. They’re in a center of a rich wine-producing area. We drank 2006 Montlouis Les Tuffeaux, a biodynamic, demi-sec, minerally chenin blanc with pear and grassy notes and a balanced finish with our truffle dish and before that, a shrimp and ratatouille starter.
With our lapin (rabbit) prepared three ways, one with a licorice sauce, we drank 2006 Bourgueil “les Vingt lieux dits”, an earthy but light-enough-for-lunch old vine cabernet franc, organically farmed. The Cléments live in a farming area where it’s not unusual for farmers, still today, to breed rabbits to feed their families.
It wasn’t only a tour of France that we got during our morning culinary outing. Weezie had been on her own trail, buying the rabbit from Market Hall in Rockridge, the Belgian salsify from the Berkeley Bowl, licorice powder from Indus, an Indian store on San Pablo in Berkeley, potato starch from the Kosher section in Piedmont Gro., Oakland.
And the truffle? You could say that came from the floor.
© Wanda Hennig, 2009