Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Nod to the Nose: Truffle Oil and Herve Mons Cheeses

Lately, my desk has been the collection point for the wrappers and packaging of products that I've been sent and have tasted. Some food writers have a policy against receiving samples, but since I write about markets and a variety of products, I figure samples give me access to potentially wonderful items I'd otherwise not readily encounter. And, if I discover something fabulous, I can pass that along to you. Likewise, I can give you something to think about if I'm not altogether crazy about something I've tried.

I have a thing for olive oil and truffles, so naturally that makes me curious about truffle oil. There's been a lot of debate about the relative merits of truffle oil. Its existence alone makes some chefs cringe. And, well, who wouldn't prefer to have slices of white or black truffles adorning their pasta or scrambled eggs or integrated into sauces. But, the reality for most of us is that truffles are simply out of range for us financially. A good truffle oil -- and by that I mean a high quality olive oil incorporating real truffle pieces -- can add welcome earthy flavors to a dish and is far more affordable. I still remember the first time I enjoyed it --years ago at a restaurant in San Francisco; it was drizzled over very ripe Teleme cheese that drippingly adorned a pizza-like flatbread. I still like to make that combination.

What do you want to avoid when buying truffle oil? Those in which the primary ingredients are concocted in a laboratory using aromatic compounds that may or, more likely, not actually be derived from truffles. Sadly, when it comes to truffle oil, it seems it's all about the aroma and not the complex flavors that distinguish the real thing. A lot of companies have spent a lot of money trying to develop chemical compounds that mimic the scent, leaving consumers spending good money on products that only hint at what can be an extraordinary culinary experience. For an interesting read on this, check out this New York Times article.

So, I'm conflicted about the products I received from Susan Rice Truffle Products and which are sold, among other places, on foodzie.com. On the one hand, her Charlie's Truffled Popcorn is absolutely addictive. The three-ounce bag is made with truffle aroma, yes, but also black perigord truffle and summer truffle. I brought a bag with me to share with friends last Saturday for a limoncello-making session and their first reaction was that it had to contain garlic, but there's none there. It's simply a powerful musky flavor, enhanced further by Sicilian truffle salt. This is good enough to serve in a bowl as an appetizer before a dinner party, but so good that you may not be able to hold onto it long enough for a party. I ripped into a bag last night while my dinner was cooking and -- poof -- gone.

The packaging claims that the company grows European black winter truffles on their 200-acre farm near Pinehurst, N.C. And that's fine, although experts inevitably quibble over whether truffles grown in the U.S. are of the same quality as those found in Europe. My question is where do they go?

As in, are they in their truffle oils? If aroma is your basis for making a purchasing decision, have at it with the black truffle oil and the very unusual black winter truffle basil olive oil. But, if you look at the labels, you'll find that the ingredients include only olive oil and "tuber melanosporum" aroma. In other words black truffle aroma. In the case of the black winter truffle basil olive oil, you can also include basil aroma, not basil. Each has at first whiff that expected powerful musky perfume -- even more so the latter with the strong basil competing with the truffle scent. But where does the aroma come from? Certainly, if it were from real truffles, they'd be bragging about it and it would be on the label.

As it is with another brand: da Rosario. This is certified organic extra virgin olive oil that includes next on the label organic black winter truffles, and "100% organic truffles flavored extra virgin olive oil." From reading their literature, my understanding of this rather strange label is that the company's truffles are put into an extractor that pulls out the volatile molecules for infusion into the olive oil and then also adds pieces of freeze-dried truffle pieces to the oil. That gives it a push into at least the realm of real food and, to be honest, the aromas are gentler than the Susan Rice products but it has a nice truffle-like flavor.


Of the other two truffle oil products above, Roland White Truffle Oil, is made with Italian white truffles. Like the da Rosario, you can see small pieces of the truffle at the bottom of the bottle. It, too, is a combination of olive oil, truffle pieces and truffle aroma. A friend gave this bottle to me and I've been enjoying it on pasta, roasted vegetables and sauteed fillets of fish like red snapper and Dover sole. The other bottle -- on the right -- is something I bought at Whole Foods without even glancing at the label. It turns out to have been olive oil and chemicals or -- as it was described in the Times article "something from the truffle that is not the truffle." I ended up tossing it.

The bottom line, I guess, is that you have to decide if you want to enjoy the oils for what they are -- pretty much an artificial enhancer that approximates truffles -- and then find the brand that you think has the best flavor. Remember, a little goes a long way. And, it's best to use these as a finishing oil. It would be nice if the manufacturers would bottle them in dark glass to keep the light from ruining the oils but all of the ones I've tried have clear glass bottles, so keep them stored in a dark, cool place.

As long as we're talking about aromatic products, let's talk cheese. I received two small cheeses from Whole Foods to taste -- a Camembert and a Cazelle de Saint Affrique from Herve Mons. Herve Mons is an "affineur," a cheese ager, and many of the French cheeses imported into the U.S. are aged by Herve Mons; it's worth keeping an eye out for them.

I grew up with pungent -- and I stress pungent -- cheeses. One of my grandfathers was a zealous afficionado of Limburger cheese (he also chain smoked cheap cigars, making me think he had a terrible sense of smell, was out to torture us or simply had a need for strong olefactory stimulation). Camembert was another cheese I remember having at his house and given its strong earthy -- almost truffle-like -- aroma, that, of course makes sense.

With its papery rind and creamy interior, this Norman cows cheese is similar to Brie. Reportedly, during the French revolution a priest hid in the farmhouse of a woman named Marie Harel and taught her how Brie was made. She adapted the recipe and Camembert is the result. You'll always find these small rounds packaged in a thin wooden box that prevents them from getting spoiled during shipping. Camembert is among those foods granted a protected designation of origin as "Camembert de Normandie" and these true Camembert are made with unpasturized milk.

That brings us to the Herve Mons Camembert I sampled. Because it's pasteurized, it can't be identified as "Camembert de Normandie" but it's still a good tasting cheese that I enjoyed both at room temperature with a crusty loaf of bread topped with red onion confit and later incorporated into a very tasty dish of grits. Take a step away from "safe" brie and try this on a cheese plate.


The other cheese I sampled I had been unfamiliar with but enjoyed enormously. Cazelle de Saint Affrique (on the left above) is a sheeps milk cheese from the Midi Pyrenees near Spain. It gets it name -- and its odd stone shape -- from the squat little huts shepherds in Saint Affrique long used to protect themselves from the weather. This same breed of sheep, Lacaune, also produces milk used to make Rocquefort cheese. An artisinal cheese made in small batches, the Cazelle de Saint Affrique has got a firm, creamy texture thanks to the high levels of milk solids and there's a bit of bloom to the nose -- a sheeps milk cheese with attitude. If you're looking for something a little different to serve your friends, I recommend this little odd-looking gem.