Sunday, November 29, 2009
Is truffle cheese trite?
Jonathan, my wife's cousin, is what we call a serial obsessive. A few years ago it was old magazines. Then it was Delta blues, and he spent much of his free time collecting records and visiting its places of origins, usually proceeding through the sites at his customarily glacial speed. Then it was cheeses. Then it was mushrooms (the legal, gastronomic kind, as far as we know) and there were wild mushrooms leaving their spore prints on paper all over his very large house. Now it is truffles.
On a recent trip to Italy, he and his wife Debbie visited their daughter in Siena, and went to a number of other places. They visited the Truffle museum (2 small rooms took Jonathan 2 1/2 hours), and bought all sorts of implements, such as the truffle digger, pictured on the top left, which they will almost certainly never use. As we learned, you carry your pig into the woods to the right spots, near oak trees I think, in a wheelbarrow, because the legs of the right kind of pig are so short that you would miss truffle season if you waited for it to get there on its own power. When the pig starts sniffing and digging, you use this implement to get at the truffle which grows about a foot below the surface. Though he didn't buy any truffles, Jonathan also brought a pretty neat truffle shaver, pictured as the bottom of the three, above right. The shaver reminds me more than anything of the clamp that mohels use during a circumcision. (See above right, a more traditional and a more modern version.) There must be some spiritual connection here, I just can't figure out what it is.
What does all of this have to do with cheese, you may ask? A few months ago I had dinner at Artisanale, a restaurant in NY that specializes in an extensive cheese menu with a friend who wanted to order a truffled pecorino (sheep's milk cheese). I vetoed it, calling it "trite." Perhaps it was an inappropriate put down, never actually having tasted one, but I generally shy away from flavored cheesed (the exception being those with herb crusts or wrapped in leaves).
Anyway, after bringing out his truffle instruments, Jonathan demonstrated this weekend that his obsessions were not unique, and that they could meld. So, he brought out a large selection of cheeses, mostly pecorinos from Tuscany (and some cow's milk cheese from Vermont), many in an advanced stage of decrepitude (one had a crust with special mites in it!) that he had brought into the US in a package on which he had scribbled "PASTEURIZED" in case he had any trouble -- he didn't. (Lest anyone think I am being uncharitable here, this impromptu cheese tasting was one of the highlights of the Thanksgiving holiday.) One of the cheeses was a youngish pecorino with black truffles. It is the whitest cheese in the assemblage on the left. As a pecorino, it was quite good, though all of the cheeses were. (I think I passed on the one with the mites.) But the truffles added nothing to, and may have detracted from, what was otherwise a lovely cheese. Trite? Perhaps not the right word, but in general, a cheese stands alone, or not at all.