Sunday, February 1, 2009

Truffles and Taste

My experiences with truffles have been few and unimpressive. The first time I tasted a truffle-infused food was at a place that is impressive: Paul Bocuse’s restaurant. Neither I nor the others around the table were especially appreciative. The rest of the meal was remarkable, and, best of all, my brother-in-law the doctor, thanking us for our hospitality, picked up the considerable tab.

That, my first truffle contact, was also, for a long time, my last. But now I find myself in the middle of truffle country. Not the area of Périgord most identified by Americans with truffles, but my home village’s department of Vaucluse, which, it turns out, is a major truffle producing area. Every year from the middle of November to early March, there is a truffle market in what, for us, is the local “big” city. Carpentras has something like 26,000 residents, which from the perspective of a 2600 resident village is big.

We were in Carpentras for the Friday outdoor market. What we noticed right away was a large crowd in front of the Hotel Dieu, a wonderful 18th century building that used to be the city’s hospital. As we got closer, we noticed tables behind which were individuals with baskets. In the baskets: truffles. Across the table: buyers. Some of were them engaging in the famous act of sniffing before buying. We couldn’t tell how much money was being exchanged, but an NPR program just before we left noted that prices per pound were between $250.00 and $400.00.

Closer to our new home, the village wine cooperative held a special truffle feast Friday evening. This event was to celebrate the famous fungus and to be a sort of coming out party for the latest local vintages. The truffles were brought out in a small basket. They were accompanied by a special tool, the “truffle slicer” which shaves off slivers. A chef was on hand to make the special omelets. Ample bottles of wine, red, white, rosé, were uncorked. Guests could partake in the omelet and taste as many of the new vintages as they wished. Whereas a US tasting typically means a thimblefull of wine, these folks actually poured a really drinkable quantity in the glass. As a nice bonus, unlike the wallet draining dinner at Bocuse’s, this event was completely free.

How was the omelet? Really good, I must admit. Though, once again, either my palate is not refined enough or some other venue is needed to gain a real appreciation for the famed fungus. The problem is a common one with new foods that do not overpower with salt, sugar or fat. When I was young, growing up in Maine, for example, I was no fan of my home state’s favorite crustacean.

What I have noticed in my students is a major reluctance to expand their childish palette of tastes. Plenty of them can eat cereal three times a day. We once took a group of students to France and one of them ate nothing but cereal and pasta the entire two weeks. There seems to be a general belief that tastes are just fixed and final. Students see themselves as sort of standing in the middle of things, saying “I like this,” “I like this,” “I don’t like this” as if these were definitive, unchangeable pronouncements.

Even worse, what they like and don’t like has not been influenced by traditional cuisines or holidays at grandma’s. They have been shaped by advertising which puts a premium on the sugar-salt-fat products. These products have one great advantage: they can readily be mass produced, or for the ones purveyed by fast-food restaurants, can be prepared by unskilled labor. This means that the tastes of young people, once fixed and frozen, can serve an important purpose: enhancing the revenue of companies proferring mass-marketed food. The losers in all of this are the students. They come to have a limited, faulty sense of who they are (narrow creatures with fixed, unchangeable tastes). Then they congratulate themselves on being “free” in their choices, when those are carefully guided by very astute marketing strategists.

As for me, I will assume for now that the problem lies not with the truffles, but with an inability to appreciate them on my part.

1 comment:

  1. This was one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in teaching Foundations to freshmen -- trying to instill a sense of curiosity about the world! (Pam C. here)