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Choice ingredient: Mario Prati on black winter truffle

Categories: Expert guidance

In this regular series, cooks with a connection to Borough Market explore the seasonal ingredients that give them most pleasure. This month, ex-chef and owner of Tartufaia Mario Prati tells us why the black winter truffle is his favourite January ingredient

My father was a chef for about 25 years in Italy and France, but I had no intention of following him into the kitchen. I came to England at 19 to study fine art photography and actually got my first job as a kitchen porter in a restaurant in Notting Hill to pay for the course. I worked with a chef who had trained at Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn. He decided I had something and was determined to train me. It was tough at times, but I fell in love with cooking and two years later, I was the head chef. Many of my recipes come from years of experience in those kitchens.

My favourite January ingredient is the black winter truffle—this is the best time for them. It is more subtle than the white winter truffle, with more depth of flavour. In Italy, we call the black truffle ‘dulce’—you wouldn’t say it is sweet, but there is a sweet note about it. You can get them from different countries but the best ones come from the Périgord region in France.

For all truffles, the flavour is very much dependant on both the soil and the altitude. They only grow underground and near the roots of trees, which they are attached to by filaments that are too fine for the eye to see. The quality of the truffles depends on how deep they grow and how close to the tree they are. The woodland must be in good condition if you want to have good truffles.

Release its flavour
The thing to remember with any truffle is that it needs to come into contact with some kind of animal fat, such as cheese, eggs or butter, to release its flavour. If you pick up a truffle it has this wonderful rich scent, but unless you cook it with animal fat that amazing smell will not be translated into taste. In fact, if you eat a shaving of truffle by itself, it really won’t taste of much at all.

One really nice use for the black winter truffle is in a cauliflower puree (see recipe below). My version uses Brillat Savarin—a soft, triple cream cow’s milk cheese—to provide all of the unctuous fat needed to get the best out of the truffles. I used to serve this in the restaurant with a crown of pheasant, a perfect match for the truffle. Pheasant is in season until the start of February, and is available at Furness Fish & Game.

A lot of our customers are more familiar with white winter truffles, which are delicious shaved on top of scrambled egg. When they do the same with the black winter truffle, they are often disappointed with the result. The problem is with the temperature—you need more heat than that to bring out the flavour of the black truffle.

Heat of the dish
For instance, when making a risotto, you should add the parmesan and the black truffle as soon as you take it off the heat, not when you’re dishing it up. You needn’t be throwing the truffle into a frying pan—the heat of the dish will be sufficient—but the dish does have to be hot.

There is one simple egg dish that works really well with black truffle—though this one is not for the feint hearted. Butter a ramekin and crack in a whole duck egg from Wyndham House Poultry. Then put on a layer of black winter truffle, and a layer of duck or pork fat, at least a millimetre thick. Then put it in the oven for 5 minutes at 180C. The fat will act as a lid to keep the moisture in, melting into the truffle while the duck egg cooks. It is wonderful—sometimes I have it for my breakfast, and I can’t imagine a better one.