By Gaige Davila
An Alba white truffle has unexpectedly made its South Texas debut, traveling more than 5,000 miles between Alba, Italy, and South Padre Island because of a now-familiar set of coronavirus circumstances.
The truffle, scientific name tuber magnatum pico, arrived at F&B (Food & Beverage), the restaurant of Executive Chef and Co-Owner Walter Greenwood and General Manager and Co-Owner Brandi Hackett, last week.
Greenwood, while working at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, made a connection with the same truffle supplier for Thomas Keller’s internationally-known restaurant, The French Laundry, in Yountville, California.
California shuttered outdoor dining across the southern part of the state on Dec. 6, as COVID-19 cases continue climbing. In New York City, indoor dining has been banned as of Dec. 13, also because of rising COVID-19 cases. With two major markets out, the truffles, with nowhere to go, were up for grabs.
F&B took the opportunity. The truffles’ short season (November to December) means that an upcoming shipment will be the last the Alba white truffle will be on the Island until next year, after what Greenwood describes as a successful trial run.
Greenwood says white truffles can be acquired year-round from different parts of Europe, but the “crème de la crème” are the white truffles from Alba, Italy, in the woods of the Piedmont region, dug up in a two-month window with the help of specially-trained, prized dogs.
Served in 3 or 5-gram portions, the Alba white truffle is shaved over F&B’s steaks, carbonara, steak tartare and potato leek soup. But it’s real platform is a tagliatelle pasta, folded into a parmesan-infused, chicken stock-based beurre blanc sauce, which uses truffle-infused butter. This simple pasta dish is meant to highlight the white truffle shavings, which melt over the hot pasta and fold around its strands. The flavor begins subtly but builds as the truffle shavings continue to emulsify: by the last few bites, the white truffle’s garlic-like intensity is imprinted on your tongue, and your sinuses are cleared of anything but its fragrance.
Truffles grow within the root systems of chestnut, oak and hazelnut trees, mostly in Italy, and, though many have tried, they cannot be farmed, which is why they are so expensive. The truffle’s scent emits through the soil, strong enough that the dogs can sniff out the fungi with ease. In the open, the white truffle’s fragrance becomes more intense, as its earthy, acidic aroma circulates.
A fresh white truffle’s texture is hard and dry, similar to tree roots they grow around. As they age, they soften as they acquire more moisture. But this isn’t an endearing quality.
“Moisture is the enemy of a truffle,” Greenwood said, holding a piece of the Alba white truffle with its marbling exposed. Greenwood explained that as the truffle gets softer, the surface must be carved down to harder layers, preventing any further decay.
“They’re like a snowflake,” Hackett said. “They’re all different sizes, different shapes.”
White truffles’ uniqueness doesn’t stop at their aesthetics, Hackett explained: large truffles can have no smell and little flavor while small truffles can be extremely fragrant and flavorful. What determines their flavor and aroma is entirely dependent on variables of the earth: rain, soil and minerals.
Along with their truffle-laden dinner entrees, this past Sunday, F&B served a white-truffle infused French omelet, with, of course, truffle shaved over it. The infusion is made by leaving the truffles inside a case of eggs and butter, where the fragrance penetrates through the egg shell and past the surface of the butter. Like the pasta before it, the omelet is a base highlighting the white truffle and its flavor-changing presence with other ingredients.
“It’s one of those ingredients where less is more,” Greenwood said. “You want this to really speak for itself.”
F&B is open Tuesday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 3109 Padre Blvd.