This summer I was lucky enough to have dinner with a grande dame of the aristocratic old school. One of her most charming mannerisms was the way she pronounced ‘truffle’: she would draw it out into ‘trooofle’, as if the word were almost more delightful than the thing. That warm South-of-France night came back to me this rainy Monday past in the quasi-Mediterranean setting of the back room at Daphne’s as we enjoyed their truffle tasting menu (£250).
Yes, it is now truffle season. The dogs (no longer pigs, for they eat what they find) have snuffled around the Marche and northern Italy, and the result of their labours – the subterranean fungus which looks a little like a ginger root and smells a little like garlic, only garlic breathed on by Aphrodite – were being shaved over our six courses.
For my money (that is, of course, only a metaphor here), the first course – carpaccio of kingfish with langoustine and truffle dressing – could have done with a little more tartness, but then I guess that would have worked against the truffles.
The second course got it exactly right, however: buffalo ricotta tortelloni with slightly pickled artichokes and shaved truffle. The fizzing artichoke and the creamy, rich pasta played off one another perfectly, while the truffle did what it always should: it imparts a certain flavour, yes, but it enhances the smoothness and the flavour of everything else. It is like sticking a rocket onto a Maserati. This was easily one of the best dishes I have ever eaten.
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Meanwhile, conversation on our table had moved on to which character of the Iliad you were like. (This is the result of an unexpected clutch of Classicists finding themselves together.) I was obviously the rude one who has a go at Agamemnon and whose skull Odysseus then threatens to bash in.
The dinner was advertised as a tasting menu – many courses of smaller quantity – but the portion sizes were distinctly a la carte, for the fillet of beef (pictured above)would quite happily have served as an entire dinner in itself. Again, the smoothness of the beef was accentuated by the truffled polenta, and the garlic spinach was in suitable relation.
I hadn’t partaken in any of the wines so far, as nice as they looked, because I was trying to get the week off to a slowish start, but I can’t resist dessert wines, from Sauternes and Vin Santo to Samos and Tokaji. With a wedge of the aged Pecorino Sardo and truffled honey (truffled! honey!) came Tuscan Vin Santo, Fattoria Montellori, deep salmon and drinkable only in sips of suppressed pleasure.
As it was a school night, my friend and I took the last two courses together. The zabaglione with figs was fresh and light, a smart conclusion to a rich meal, while the very last truffled extravagance was a cocktail called Il Gran Finale, and came courtesy of the evening’s sponsors, Zacapa Rum (pictured below).
The nice gentleman from Zacapa, their brand ambassador (is his embassy in Berry Bros & Rudd?), described the Guatemalan origins of the rum, how it was blended from aged rums distilled from sugar canes cut high in the mountains. It sounded, frankly, like a preamble to the birth of Hercules. (Who only makes an appearance in the Iliad in asides.)
The cocktail had one of those impressive ice balls which you have to spend three weeks atop Mount Fuji in a state of complete calm to learn to carve, and around it swished the Zacapa rum, truffle oil and grapefruit zest. At first I was unimpressed, only tasting the rum, but the truffle oil definitely elongated the flavour and the grapefruit tang came through at the end, a pleasantly tingling surprise.
The one failing of the cocktail, I would say, was placing a round shaving of truffle on top of the ice ball, since that made it look less ice ball, more eyeball, and when you put two drinks next to one another, you got the distinct feeling they were watching you. Well, even if they had been, they would have seen a tremendous amount of pleasure that evening.
The truffle tasting menu is available throughout truffle season (until around mid-February) with 48 hours’ notice; individual truffle dishes are available on the a la carte menu. For more information, see www.daphnes-restaurant.co.uk