November 19 2009
Many of you, I suspect, are about to brave the rigours of that annual institution known as the Office Christmas Lunch. This, invariably, has very little to do with food and much more to do with the junior members of the company, denied the thrill of restaurant dining for much of the year, becoming rather over-excited, especially as their level of refreshment rises.
Cooking for such parties is, let me tell you, a thankless task. By the time the merry company has reached the main course, the principal requirement of the food is that it should be aerodynamic rather than edible. When I first cooked an OCL, I started out with a naïve sense of festivity; by the end, I would have cheerfully spit-roasted a robin.
If you can get away with it, gather together the most civilised of your colleagues and spirit them away for a proper lunch. The run-up to Christmas has one particular joy to commend it: tuber magnatum pico, better known as the white truffle from Alba. In Piemonte, the locals will grate it over fonduta (the divine local version of fondue), over carpaccio, over tajarin (springy egg noodles) or – and this is the classic Piemontese method – over a brace of fried eggs.
Many of London’s Italian restaurants will have their truffle graters sharpened in readiness for the “white diamonds” – L’Anima, Locanda Locatelli and Zafferano are all irreproachable places to feast on fungus – but there are a couple of other, less vaunted, ones that deserve consideration.
Quirinale (pictured), thanks to its proximity to the Houses of Parliament, is where our elected representatives used to have lunch with their executive moat cleaners and duck pond consultants. It is a smart, clubby basement dining room, and the cooking is pretty much faultless, with an accent on Sardinia. This time of year, however, the kitchen succumbs to the earthy delights of the truffle. Its four-course menu starts with potato, egg, Parmesan gratin and truffle, and finishes – adventurously – with a dish of wild berries, aged balsamico and truffle. Prices are not yet set – as I write, the truffles are still green in the ground – and you should book in advance.
Putney stalwart Enoteca Turi, whose wine list is one of the best in London, also goes truffle-mad. Signor Turi is from Puglia but the menu is distinctly northern Italian in style, with plenty of fine wild mushroom dishes as well as the truffles.
For the finest truffle experience, however, hop on a plane to Turin, motor down to Alba and book a table at Ristorante Dulcis Vitis where, after a pranzo speciale di tartufo, life will seem very sweet indeed. Party hats and Christmas crackers are strictly optional: in any case, the falling flakes of snow-white truffle landing on your plate should be festive enough.