Oh, mighty tuber magnatum! Sensual and elusive Alba madonna, where do I begin? For you are one of the most enigmatic and hedonistic tastes around. You spend your life underground, to be unearthed by passing dog and his trifolau master. For centuries you have been fêted and fawned over. Legend has it that that you are formed where lightning hits the ground. You are sold for tens of thousands of dollars, ending up at some of the finest restaurants in the world. I am, of course, talking about the exquisite white truffle.
The finest white truffles grow in Alba, a small town in Piedmont in Italy, and their main season runs from early October to late November. Yes, you can find white truffles in other parts of Italy, as well as in Croatia, but none of these have the extraordinarily perfumed pungency of Alba's finest. These truffles are quite possibly one of the most sought after foods in history, commanding a commensurate price; in November 2010, Chinese businessman Stanley Ho, paid a whopping $330,000 for just two Alba truffles – five times the value of their weight in gold.
I am a (sadly infrequent) worshipper at the altar of the white truffle. There are few things that can't be improved by the liberal addition of gossamer thin slices of white truffle. OK, I exaggerate a touch, but the aroma. Oh, the AROMA! A heady and complex mix of wet earth and musk, with notes of toasted nuts, straw and even honey. No two Alba truffles are quite the same, but all possess that intoxicating, almost erotic perfume, and most of the taste of white truffles comes from this bewitching aroma.
So on a recent trip to London, I found myself at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught Hotel on a mission to try their Alba truffle tasting menu, which they offer for lunch and dinner during the peak of the truffle season. Darroze's pedigree is impeccable. She worked as Alain Ducasse's right hand lady at his legendary three-Michelin starred Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo before opening her own eponymous restaurant on Paris's Left Bank in 1999. In 2001 she gained her first star, with a second coming in 2003. She subsequently lost one of her two stars in the 2010 version of the famous guide. The Connaught is her second venture and opened in 2008, gaining a Michelin star just one year later (Update: In the 2011 edition of the Michelin guide it was awarded a second star). Obviously she can't be in two places at once, so the restaurant at the Connaught is overseen by the very capable Raphael François, former head chef of Darroze's Parisian restaurant.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Nibbler does not share my enthusiasm for truffles. So on this occasion she made it clear that if I wanted truffles I was on my own. So it was that I arrived for lunch, reading material in hand, at my table for one in the opulent Connaught dining room, resplendent in dark wood panelled walls, heavy starched white tablecloths, and lushly upholstered chairs. I needn't have worried about dining alone, as I struck up a friendly conversation with two delightful ladies at the neighbouring table after they asked to take a photo of the whole truffle that was being presented to me. It turned out they were food bloggers from Japan (Cinq Etoiles and Flyrobin), so we had fun discussing all things food.
I waved away the à la carte menu and went straight for the seven-course Alba truffle tasting menu. Almost instantly a waiter appeared with a plate, lifting its cloche to reveal a beautiful white truffle specimen sitting on a mound of Arborio rice. This was to be my truffle for the afternoon, and I was pleased to meet its acquaintance. Its miraculous aroma hit me instantly and, yes, I did inhale. Deeply. Sadly it was swiftly whisked away into the kitchen where it remained for the entirety of the lunch; there would be no table-side truffle slicing here. All the dishes would be completed in the kitchen which, while ensuring a visually appealing finished product, does rob you of some of the magic in eating white truffles.
First, I was presented with a couple of amuse bouches. A butternut squash velouté was deliciously creamy, although the mint foam it was topped with didn't go with it all. A bread roll of Piedmont peppers was warm, but very dry, like something you'd expect to be served on an airplane. A somewhat inauspicious start then.
Another seafood dish next. This time a Jurassic sized Scottish scallop was served roasted in its shell, with Parmesan 'cappuccino', and white truffle shavings. Again, it was sensational, the salty parmesan acting as a perfect foil to the sweet, succulent scallop, while the white truffles did their ambrosial thing.
Food: 9 / 10
Service: 7 / 10
Ambiance: 8 / 10
London. W1K 2AL