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TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE- Truffles Are Mushrooming in the Napa Valley PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Blanchette, Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 10 November 2011 02:36


Many restaurants and shops in Napa, Calif., offer a view of the Napa River.

"If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without truffles" — Colette

All right, it was decadent, self-indulgent, over the top and a bit expensive, but it was one of the greatest culinary weekends of my life — the Annual Truffle Festival in California's Napa Valley, organized by the American Truffle Co.

Six Michelin-starred chefs with a nose for truffles had been gathered from around the world, invited by Ken Frank of La Toque at the Westin Verasa Hotel to cater a monumental feast. Chef Frank is a champion of the truffle and is one of the chefs most responsible for the rise of California/French-influenced menus in the 1970s, when he was the first chef at Michael's Restaurant in Santa Monica, the birthplace of California Cuisine.

Among the chefs summoned to Napa were Gabriel Kreuther of The Modern in New York; Sylvain Portay of Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo; Josiah Citrin from Melisse in Santa Monica; David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California; and Nancy Oakes of Boulevard in San Francisco — sharing among them 13 Michelin stars.

The Victorian town of Napa, built along its tidal river, is the gateway and largest community in the valley with a population of 73,000. It lies on Route 29, 46 miles north of San Francisco. Many exciting young chefs have added their presence to the town's numerous tasting rooms, along with Food TV Network icons Tyler Florence and Iron Chef Morimoto.

The town should be explored by foot, with lovely artisan shops and restaurants fronting the Napa River and scattered throughout town. Every corner has markers directing visitors to restaurants and tastingroom sites.

Not to be missed is the Oxbow Public Market on First and McKinstry streets. Similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, under one roof are artisan bakeries, butchers, cafes and restaurants, the Hog Island Oyster Co., wine shops, produce, tea and spice emporiums, homemade ice cream and candies, olives and — my favorite — the Cheese Merchant, where fromagier Lassa Skinner offers tastes of her local and imported wares.

More than 250 wineries can be found in the 30-mile-long, fivemile- wide V-shaped valley, whose complexity of soils and microclimates allows the production of 37 different grape varieties and world-class winemaking. Over the weekend I got to taste some exceptional wines both unaccompanied and matched with courses. Some of the more memorable were the Pinot Gris from Robert Sinskey of the Carneros region, where I later explored the truffle orchard that is planted next to his vines.

Two of the best Pinot Noirs were served by Truchard and Miner vineyards: beautiful fruit, inviting noses and different but both exceptional approaches to the wine. Liparita's Cabernet Sauvignon was a cigar-lover's dream.

I arrived on Friday afternoon for a champagne reception at the hotel with some passed truffleenhanced hors d'oeuvres, exceptional wines and a chance to meet truffle enthusiasts from around the world. That evening two local restaurants hosted trufflethemed meals for the attendees: The Farm at Carneros Inn and the in-town hot spot Oenotri. Among the group were some serious trufflites. Many had started their own orchards and were here to attend seminars on the latest farming techniques, methods and scientific research. I was here for the food and wine and to learn about this mysterious fungus. Ron Calegari, who owns a nearby olive grove and wants to start truffles on his property, was one of the attendees. Doug Duda of the A&E TV series "The Well- Seasoned Traveler" gave the humorous and informative keynote speech, and several doctors of mycology and other truffle- cultivation experts were among the guests and lecturers.

Duda addressed the aphrodisiacal lure of truffles (they are said to mimic the pheromones of male pigs, which is why sows make such great foragers). Apparently there are some residual effects that work on humans, as well.

As with heady cheeses, the aroma of some truffles does not appeal to everyone, such as angel's feet truffles, but I am an addict of this earthy musk-emitter, a self-admitted bipedal truffle pig. I got to root up my fill at the festival. Surprisingly, the actual taste of the truffle is often bland when shaved over dishes; it is the aromatic esters of the fungus infused into butter, sauces and other mediums that impart the flavors into the food.

Chef Frank believes that truffles lose their fragrance in halflives about every four days if not stored correctly, so there will be no flavor left after 16 days out of the ground. This is one of the reasons the industry is feverishly working to develop American truffles, which can be on chefs' plates the same day they are extracted from the earth, rather than delivered from France and Italy four days after harvest. Currently there are truffle orchards popping up all over the United States, most notably in North Carolina, Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Chef Frank offered a kitchen demonstration prior to lunch on Saturday in which he prepared some creamy scrambled eggs that had been stored with truffles, transferring the flavor through the shells. He also made sous vide salmon infused with truffles. At lunch he created a satisfying mushroom, truffle and chestnut soup and a succulent truffled chicken.

Saturday night, after all the excursions, seminars and demonstrations, came the big moment for truffles to shine: the sold-out dinner at La Toque, a seven-course truffle menu, each dish prepared by a different Michelin chef and paired with seven different wines. It was poetry in the kitchen as these six worldclass chefs worked the line together and proudly introduced their creations to the dinning audience.

The meal began at 6:30 p.m. and lasted until the final dessert course was consumed at 11 p.m. The menu included an appetizer of scrambled ranch eggs served inside the shell with burgundy truffle sauce and truffle toast, black truffle salad with foie gras and celery remoulade, lobster with truffle walnut sauce, cod with softened onions in brown butter and burgundy truffle sauce, duck pot au feu in black truffle cream, Wagyu beef on a bed of roasted beet risotto dressed with a truffle au jus, and for dessert a sweet trio of warm beignet with white chocolate truffle sauce, a truffled panna cotta with hazelnut anglaise and a chestnut truffle ice cream sandwich.

On Sunday morning the traditional truffle omelet was served at brunch: lovely, soft and fragrant. Unfortunately, unlike Colette, I had had enough and could only handle a token bite of the simple masterpiece. I finished my English muffin and roasted potatoes and left truffle-sated.


Next year the Annual Truffle Festival will be held Jan. 13-15 and hosted once again by Ken Frank at La Toque ( in the Westin Verasa Hotel (

The hotel offers suites with kitchen, sitting room and separate bedroom; spa, pool and one of the most comfortable hotel beds I've ever experienced, all within a few feet of Chef Frank's truffle paradise.

For information on next year's festival, including a three-day weekend package with passes to all events: www.napatrufflefestival. com. For general information about the area:

Last Updated on Thursday, 10 November 2011 03:24

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