As in other fields of human endeavour, skulduggery in the food world is most inventive when the rewards are greatest. Just as nobody would forge a £5 note any more, so no one would go to the trouble of faking a parsnip.
For caviar, though, caveat emptor: who knows what dodgy paddlefish eggs (or worse) might lurk in your shiny tin? And when it comes to saffron, the world’s priciest spice, how many of your precious stigmas are actually pomegranate fibres?
But, especially at this time of year, it is the truffle – specifically tuber magnatum pico, the white truffle – that inspires the most chicanery. Tales abound of blood feuds and poisoned dogs, while dealers have been known to rub the distinctive ochre soil from Alba over inferior truffles from eastern Europe, or spray them with ersatz aroma.
Far easier, I think, to let a reputable restaurateur do the choosing on your behalf: Sam Harris, for example, chef/patron of the excellent Zucca restaurant in London’s Bermondsey. Like Jacob Kenedy at Soho’s brilliant Bocca di Lupo and Andy Needham, head chef of Zafferano in Mayfair (both are also splendid places to sample truffle, by the way), Harris is an Englishman with a profound love for Italian food. His peerless truffle menu includes a white risotto, made with carnaroli rice and chicken stock; carne cruda all’albese, thinly sliced raw beef or veal; tajarin, the springy, egg-rich, orange-hued Piemontese pasta; and a brace of eggs, scrambled or fried. Each dish is adorned, of course, with heavenly shavings of white truffle.
The pezzo forte of his truffle menu, however, is vincisgrassi, a sumptuous dish from Le Marche, made famous in this country by Franco Taruschio, erstwhile proprietor of The Walnut Tree Inn, near Abergavenny, and Britain’s great trailblazer for authentic Italian food. If the white truffle likes fat – eggs and cream in particular – then it absolutely adores vincisgrassi: layers of fresh pasta, béchamel, Parma or San Daniele ham, fresh porcini and plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano, pressed and baked, then – at Zucca – served in a square before being submerged by a blizzard of truffle. It is a dish to help one face the rigours of winter with equanimity.
Zucca also offers the opportunity to buy a white truffle for the whole table: several, of varying shapes and sizes, are presented for your inspection. Any that remains – try to save a little – can be taken home and used to perfume your breakfast eggs. A tip: rinse and dry a few eggs (from happy hens, naturally) to make the shells more porous, then leave them in a paper bag with your truffle overnight to soak up the scent. Simply scrambled, there is no better way to break one’s fast.