Truffle-hunt right here

  • Exotic find: Chef Abhijit Saha and Suresh Pai with the truffles that were found in the latter’s coffee plantation in Chikmagalur, Karnataka.
    Exotic find: Chef Abhijit Saha and Suresh Pai with the truffles that were found in the latter’s coffee plantation in Chikmagalur, Karnataka.

‘Culinary gold’ from a coffee-estate in Karnataka sets out to tickle gourmet palates..

For the un-initiated, the truffle, bearing the characteristics of mushrooms but growing underground on the roots of oak, chestnut or hazelnut trees, has acquired the status of a high-brow delicacy from being the food of peasants in western Europe, where it was widely grown. In recent years, a sharp drop in harvested production has resulted in prices of the truffle skyrocketing — a kilogram of the exotic Alba or white truffle can cost between €2,000 and €4,000, while a kilogram of summer truffles or black truffles could cost up to $1,500 a kg. Not surprising then that its consumption has been restricted to a handful of those with a penchant for the good things in life and the money to indulge.

Coffee plantation owner Suresh Pai seems to have struck culinary gold with confirmation now coming from Italy, the US and the local Central Coffee Research Institute that the fungus he discovered are the Alveolate species of edible truffles. Two years since the discovery, Pai is raring to make the Indian truffle available to Indian gourmets.

The Caperberry connection

Late last year, Pai roped in Abhijit Saha, one of the country’s best-known chefs and owner of the avant garde Caperberry restaurant and tapas lounge in Bangalore, to assist him in his mission. Saha, who pioneered molecular gastronomy in India with Caperberry, which he opened in Bangalore five months ago, has researched extensively on the truffles of Balehonnur, conducting food trials on them till he was convinced they were genuine. “While it is one of the tastiest delicacies available for a chef to work with, not many Indian restaurants are able to use it because it is so prohibitively expensive. And as a result, not many Indian gourmets are able to enjoy it,” says Saha. “The Indian truffles that Pai discovered are not as aromatic as the ones found in France or Italy, but the taste is still the same. This species grows under chestnut trees in the forest from June to October; so, the season is as short as it is globally too,” he adds.

The chef has been quick to put the discovery to good use. On a recent evening, Nandan Nilekani, Co-Founder - Infosys Technologies co-founder and Chairman of the Unique Identification Database Authority of India, who walked into Caperberry for a meal, sampled the special truffle menu that Saha has developed. The delicacy will be available for a short period only. Guests can savour Pan seared Foie Gras with saffron-poached pears and truffle, or bite into baked asparagus with parmesan and truffle, or relish vanilla bean panna cotta with truffles.

Challenges ahead

Right now, the Pai-Saha duo is working on extending the shelf-life of the Indian truffle. As a species, truffles have short shelf-life, barely a week, and taste best when fresh. Only a handful of premium Indian restaurants occasionally offer truffles on their menu, mostly tinned, as fresh truffles are expensive to import.

What is also unclear is how the duo would ensure availability of the produce for the restaurant’s menu next season. Globally, truffle-hunting is a fine art, with hunters employing pigs to smell out the fungi from its underground home. Truffle-hunters are incredibly secretive about the location of the growth and often hunt under the cover of darkness. These days, they do so using trained dogs as pigs too have a fondness for the expensive fungi!

In Balehonnur, Pai’s is a solitary hunt. “I often walk many kilometres to find 8-10 truffles and once I do, I freeze them and give them to Saha. For me, the thrill is in knowing that India too has its own variety of truffles,” he says.

Culinary expert and food entrepreneur Karen Anand, who recently tasted the Indian truffle menu at Caperberry, says, “The black truffle is almost identical to the truffles I have had in Italy and France. The Alba truffle is special in that it is very different from what is found only in Northern Italy. The important thing is that this could be big news for the Indian food industry, if we know how to leverage the fact that India too has something as rare as the truffle. It puts us on the global culinary map.” The Indian truffle, meanwhile, has no price tag on it, at least not as of today.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 18, 2009)

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