On the truffle trail By JOHN DEMERS Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle THE chill air of Provence, France, carries hints of lavender, thyme and mint. And all eyes are on Jade the dog. Although we are not digging for diamonds in South Africa, the anticipation must be about the same. The "diamond" this ghost-white English Labrador seeks among the gnarled roots of an oak orchard carries one of food's heftiest price tags. In the twilight, we watch Jade do her job, nose to the ground, sniffing for truffles. The finest truffles could sell in some U.S. gourmet catalogs for $2,000 a pound or more. As though meeting for espionage, we parked earlier at the center of a medieval village and waited for Jade and his master, Joel Barthelemy. When he arrived, dressed in jeans and wearing a thick, peasant sweater, a jute shoulder sack and just a hint of beard, we agreed that if we were looking for a rustic Frenchman for a movie, Barthelemy came straight from central casting. Our minivan then followed his truck out of the village and crisscrossed vineyards cut back since autumn along a web of muddy tracks. Man's best friend "Voici," Barthelemy breathes suddenly. We stop in silence. Ten feet away, Jade digs intently. Mustering all his energy for English, Barthelemy smiles and nods toward his dog. "Zhherrre!" Jade has found a truffle, nothing less than Tuber melanosporum, the fungus worth a fortune. She's earning her keep in the region of Tricastin, part of the wine-blessed Rhone Valley north of Avignon -- for more than a century a mecca for lovers of the French black truffle. And she's relying on lifelong training by Barthelemy (who also grows grapes for wine) to shunt and shift her nose along the ground, seeking the perfect root with the perfect truffle beneath the dark, rich, ancient Provençal earth. One of the world's most expensive foods, truffles like the ones we seek grow 12 inches below the ground. Because you can't see evidence of them, the task of finding truffles in Europe fell to animals. Pigs were found to have great noses, yet dogs like Jade developed a fan club, too. Dogs, it's argued around Tricastin, can be better-trained and find truffles as well as pigs. They also are less likely to devour the treasure before it can be recovered by a truffier such as Barthelemy. Once the sniffer locates the high-priced sniffee, the truffle farmer gently scrapes back the earth between him and his prize. If he decides the truffle isn't ripe, he presses the earth back around it, leaving it for harvest another day. If the truffle looks good to him, he digs it up with all the care merited an item someday to grace the world's best tables at some of the world's highest prices. 'Très chères' Truffles vary in both perceived quality and cachet, meaning that the market sets the price at any given time. Chefs can get domestic white truffles from Oregon for about $50 per pound; Oregon black winter truffles are priced at about twice that. Imported black truffles, whether from France or Italy, run $400-$500 per pound, with the price for a pound of imported white truffles varying week to week between $1,700 and $2,400. One of the chefs paying the price is Toby Joseph of the Remington Grill at Houston's St. Regis. "The appeal is the money," Joseph says candidly. "It's the expensive taste; it's the unique hunting of the product. And last but not least, it's the flavor you won't ever forget." He stops, almost tasting truffle but failing to sufficiently describe it. "There's always a respect level with every dish you make. But when you approach a truffle, it's a little like approaching God." Recent "approaches" at the Remington Grill have included Sturgeon With Lobster Hash and White Truffle Cream, Crunchy Curry Tempura Oysters and Seared Diver Scallops With Truffle Butter. At Bistro Lancaster in downtown's Theater District, chef Tommy Child has found a market for many dishes flavored with truffles -- including traditional cream of mushroom soup. "Truffles have a mystique about them," he says. "They are a fruit of the gods, almost. It's history, the harvesting -- it all adds to the mystery of the truffle. They have only semirecently become popular in the U.S., a craze almost. As Americans become more educated about food, their interest in exotic and unfamiliar foods grows. They now know what a truffle is, and why it is so special." At Zula, chef Lance Fegen likes to keep things simple so the taste of truffle can repay the significant investment. Salads strike him as a logical place for raw shaved truffles -- especially those made with such field greens as radicchio, endive and mache and sweet-soft herbs like tarragon and dill. "We did a potato-style salad of chilled, cooked potatoes, mache and a simple red wine vinaigrette to which we added the pan juices from a freshly roasted chicken. Juices from a roast would be even better," offers Fegen. "The juices and fats add a salty, earthy richness to the vinaigrette. You also can insert truffle slices under the skin of a chicken, duck or any bird and roast it. Don't forget to make a sauce from the pan drippings." None of this is to say that the truffle is pretty. It's rough and irregular in shape. Wrinkled skin ranges from black to white. The color alone is a source of interest and controversy, since truffle lovers tend to support either black or white truffles as best. Palatable variety There are as many as 70 varieties of truffle, but the greatest single cachet has gathered around black truffles taken from the French regions of Tricastin and Perigord. The same type of black truffles are also farmed in the Umbria region of Italy. Another renowned truffle is the white or off-white kin that comes from Italy's Piedmont. It certainly doesn't hurt their influence on Italian regional cuisine that white truffles have a special sub-flavor that reminds many of garlic. Wine and truffles have been related from the start, specifically by what proved a disaster to the first and a boon to the second. The phylloxera outbreak of the mid-1800s led French farmers to replace their infected vines with oak trees, unknowingly setting the stage for truffles. Within 30 years, the Tricastin region was supplying the lion's share of French truffles, a crop estimated then at 2,000 tons. Ironically, the French region of Perigord wins first place over Tricastin in the food name game. A famous sauce highlighted by black truffle is called Perigeux. And virtually anything featuring or finished with the slightest suggestion of truffle tends to be branded à la Perigourdine. All well and good, assert the Piedmontese, especially in the town of Alba, home to white truffles and also the proud papa of the legendary barolo and barbaresco wines. These red wines are said to include truffles, along with violets and vanilla, in the complexity of their bouquets. Look for truffles in gourmet shops and upscale supermarkets such as Central Market. Fresh imported truffles should be available into the midwinter months. Look for the firm ones that are slightly less misshapen than their neighbors, and look for no blemishes. Local gourmet purveyor Spec's stocks jars of truffles in oil or water at $12-$15 per truffle depending on the size. In addition, the store offers two increasingly popular "extenders:" truffle oil (oil infused with fresh truffles) starting at $10 for a 2-ounce bottle, and truffle butter (domestic butter with flecks of imported truffles). That's $6.84 for 2 ounces of Urbani, upward to $22.52 for 8 ounces of Cucina Viva. Dozens of tricks have helped truffle lovers get the most out of their investment. In addition to saving the peelings from black truffles to add depth to soups and stews, savvy cooks bury truffles in a container of white rice or whole eggs and cover the mix tightly before refrigerating it. The earthy aroma of truffle permeates everything in which it has been stored. If you're really getting into the act, there's even a truffle slicer, an adjustable blade mounted on a stainless steel frame. Set at a 45-degree angle, the blade shaves off tiny slivers of a truffle pressed down and across it. Mild-flavored white truffles, which don't have to be peeled, tend to turn up grated raw over pastas and cheese dishes. The fuller-flavored black truffles usually grace cooked foods like omelets, polentas and risottos. "People who have traveled overseas or dined in our finer Houston restaurants come in here and ask for truffles," says Uwe Perschke, buyer for specialty foods at Spec's. "This is not what people use every day. But for special occasions or to impress your friends, you try to do something unusual." Truffle recipes Sturgeon With Lobster Hash and White Truffle Cream Remington Grill 9 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided 6 (7-ounce) sturgeon fillets Salt and ground black pepper to taste 2 sprigs fresh tarragon, chopped 2 medium potatoes, diced 1 red onion, diced 1 pound fresh green beans, blanched 1 medium lobster tail, cooked and chopped 1 large shallot, chopped 8 tablespoons sherry 1 tablespoon butter 2 cups whipping cream 1 teaspoon white truffle oil 1/2 ounce white truffles, (1 small white truffle) shaved Chervil for garnish Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in large, oven-proof frying pan. Season sturgeon with salt, black pepper and tarragon. Place in pan; sear until golden brown. Place in oven; finish cooking 8 minutes. For the hash, while sturgeon is baking, heat remaining 5 tablespoons oil in large sauté pan. Add potatoes; cook until golden brown. Remove. In same oil, sauté onions until soft. Strain oil. Place potatoes back in pan; add beans and cook until thoroughly heated. Add lobster, season to taste and sauté 1 to 2 minutes. Keep warm. When fish is done, remove from pan; keep warm. Place pan on stovetop; over medium heat, add shallots to pan; deglaze with sherry. Add butter, then cream; reduce by half. Add truffle oil; mix thoroughly. Set aside; keep warm. Place hash in center of each of 6 plates; top with a sturgeon fillet. Spoon sauce around the hash. Sprinkle shaved truffle around edge and finish with a chervil sprig. Makes 6 servings. Crunchy Curry Tempura Oysters and Seared Diver Scallops With Truffle Butter Remington Grill Vegetable or peanut oil for frying 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 cup cornstarch 1 tablespoon baking powder 3 tablespoons curry powder 1/2 cup cold water 2 egg whites, beaten to soft peaks 12 medium oysters, shucked in half shell 6 large diver scallops Salt and white pepper to taste 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup Winter Truffle Butter, melted (recipe follows) 2 ounces julienned winter truffles 1/2 shallot, finely diced 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 teaspoon white truffle oil 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice 1/4 pound mixed field greens Heat oil to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine flour, cornstarch, baking powder and curry. Gently fold in water and egg whites. Keep chilled. Pat oysters dry, dip in tempura mix and fry in batches until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Let oil return to 350 degrees between batches. Place each fried oyster in a half shell; set aside. Season scallops with salt and white pepper. Heat butter in a skillet; sear scallops until browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from pan; slice in half. Place two halves on each plate; drizzle with melted Winter Truffle Butter. In a large bowl, combine truffles, shallots, olive oil, truffle oil, lemon juice, salt and white pepper; mix well. Add greens; toss well. To assemble, divide greens among six plates, setting aside a small amount for garnish. Top each bed of greens with two oysters in shells and two scallop halves. Garnish the tempura oysters with the reserved greens. Drizzle melted Winter Truffle Butter over the scallops. Makes 6 servings. Winter Truffle Butter 1/4 pound unsalted butter, softened 1 ounce finely diced winter truffles 6 teaspoons salt 1 1/2 teaspoons white truffle oil In a medium bowl, whip butter, truffles, salt and truffle oil together until thoroughly mixed. Roll the butter into a log and chill until needed. Can be frozen. Makes 1 cup. Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup With Truffles Bistro Lancaster 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/4 cup olive oil 2 cups diced yellow onion 1 cup diced celery 1 cup diced carrots 2 tablespoons chopped garlic 2 pounds sliced wild mushrooms (shiitake, cremini, oyster, chanterelle or a combination) 2 small black truffles sliced, divided Salt and ground black pepper to taste 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped 1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped 2 bay leaves 3/4 cup cabernet sauvignon or merlot 6 cups beef or veal stock 1/2 cup melted unsalted butter 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1 cup whipping cream Porcini-Dusted Focaccia Croutons (recipe follows) 1/4 cup white truffle oil Melt butter with olive oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add onions, celery, carrots and garlic; sauté until soft. Add mushrooms and 1 sliced truffle and cook, stirring constantly, 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add thyme, sage and bay leaves; sauté 2 minutes. Add wine; reduce for 2 minutes. Add stock; bring to a boil. Whisk together melted butter and flour until smooth to make roux. While soup is boiling, whisk in roux in small amounts until soup begins to thicken. Reduce heat; simmer 20 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat; allow to cool 5 minutes then carefully purée in blender to desired texture. Place soup back in saucepan; add cream. Serve immediately. To assemble, ladle hot soup into bowls and top with croutons. Divide remaining truffle slices among the bowls, placing on top of croutons. Lightly drizzle with white truffle oil. Makes 8 servings. Porcini-Dusted Focaccia Croutons 1 small loaf focaccia 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1/2 cup dried ground porcini mushrooms Salt and ground black pepper to taste Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut focaccia into 1/2-inch cubes; toss in a medium bowl with olive oil, porcini (can be ground in coffee mill) salt and black pepper. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet; toast in oven 10 minutes or until golden brown and crunchy. Remove from oven; keep warm. Warm Torte of Wild Mushroom, Foie Gras and Fresh Truffle Cafe Perrier 2 small shallots, chopped 2 tablespoons butter 1 garlic clove, chopped 16 assorted wild mushrooms (chanterelle, shiitake, black trumpets) 1/2 cup cognac 1/4 cup whipping cream 4 (3-ounce) slices fresh foie gras 1 large or 2 small butter pastry sheets 1 egg, beaten 1 large (5 ounce) black truffle, thinly sliced Heat nonstick pan to medium. Add shallots, butter, and garlic. Sauté until transparent. Brush mushrooms clean, do not wash; slice into medium-size pieces. Add to pan; sauté until tender. Place a bowl under a colander; place sautéed vegetables into colander so juices run into bowl. Add cognac, cream and vegetable juices to pan. Reduce by about half, until thick and syrupy. Toss mushrooms into pan; coat in sauce. Remove from pan; set aside. Add foie gras to pan; lightly sear over high heat. Remove foie gras from pan; stir pan juices into mushroom mixture. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut pastry sheets into 16 (3-by-3-inch) squares. Place 8 squares on a baking sheet; brush pastry with beaten egg. Divide mushroom mixture evenly among squares; add 5 to 6 slices fresh truffle; top with remaining 8 pastry squares. Seal edges of pastry with a fork. Brush top with remaining egg wash. Cut a small slit in pastry tops to vent. Bake 14 minutes, or until golden brown. Makes 4 servings. Warm Duck Breast and Fresh Truffle Salad Chez Georges and Bistro Provence 1 teaspoon olive oil 1 (12- to 14-ounce) duck breast, skin intact 4 red potatoes 1 tablespoon truffle oil 1/2 cup minced shallots 1 fresh black truffle, sliced Salt and ground black pepper to taste 1 tablespoon chopped chives 2 cups mixed field greens Truffle Vinaigrette (recipe follows) Heat olive oil in sauté pan over medium heat; cook duck breast 7 minutes on skin side, 3 minutes on the other side. Set aside and keep warm. Cook red potatoes in boiling salted water; slice. In sauté pan, heat truffle oil and sauté shallots and truffles, then add potatoes; season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; top with chives. Divide field green among 2 plates. Divide potatoes among plates, placing them in the center of plate. Slice duck breast; place slices around potatoes; top with Truffle Vinaigrette. Makes 2 servings. Truffle Vinaigrette 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar 3 tablespoons truffle oil Salt and ground black pepper to taste In a small bowl, whisk together mustard, vinegar, truffle oil, salt and pepper. Root Here For Fresh Truffles Fresh truffles: Central Market: Fresh black and white truffles, preserved truffles and truffle products, 713-386-1700; www.centralmarket.com. Earthy Delights: Fresh and frozen truffles in addition to truffle oils and products, 800-367-4709; www.earthy.com. Citarella: New York gourmet store offering black and white truffles in season, 212-874-0383; www.citarella.com.