Samui Wining & Dining
Kitchen Diamonds

Italy’s largest producer of truffles comes to Samui – thanks to Claudio Cerquetti.

 

12-13The Bible mentions them several times. Plato wrote about them. They’ve fascinated mankind for almost 4,000 years and folklore enshrouds them in mystery and magic. We’re talking about truffles; the edible underground ‘mushrooms’, seasonal, elusive, and frustratingly difficult to cultivate. They’re the delight of chefs and gourmets everywhere and, pound for pound, one of the most expensive foods on the planet. For a while now they’ve been available on Samui, but only in very limited quantities from specialist suppliers. Well – that’s just changed. Italy’s biggest supplier, Sabatino Tartufi, has arrived, working exclusively with well-known Samui personality, photographer and author, Claudio Cerquetti. But more of this, as they say, in just a moment!

    One of the reasons that truffles are such an enigma is that you never know where to find them. Unlike most crops, you can’t just plant them then reap the rewards of the harvest later. First of all you cant even see them: they grow underground. Secondly, their natural growth pattern means that they germinate and grow in close contact with trees, usually oak or beech, attached to the root filaments. A truffle farmer does not plant truffles; he plants trees. And, five years later at the earliest, 10 years later more likely, he’ll then hunt around the grove with an animal – a pig traditionally, but a trained dog most frequently – that can smell buried truffles. It’s a hit and miss process, with no guarantee of crop-yield from year to year. As one expert put it, “This is why truffles are so sought after. If they were controllable and easy to produce then their value would be much lower and they wouldn’t be a speciality any more.”

   There are dozens of different kinds of truffles but the most prized of all is the white variety. White truffles occur near the Alps in the Piedmont region of northern Italy and in the Central areas as Umbria, Tuscany and Croatia. Some truffles grow all year round; the black ones, for example. But the white truffle season starts in Autumn and it’s actually illegal to sell them until then, to ensure quality. White truffles have a tempting musky aroma, and are definitely the most expensive and luxurious choice, since the price can reach 3000 Euros/Kg or more! The black truffle has the most intense flavour of all truffles, characterized by its earthy, pungent notes.

      But the truffles themselves – those prized little items that are rooted out of the soil – they’re only a part of the story. The most-affordable by-product (and probably also the best value) are the small bottles of olive oil flavoured with truffles, black or white, used as salad dressings or cooking oil. Other excellent offshoots are truffle butter and truffle creams. You’ll find an entire industry jogging along behind the exotic little truffle, including also truffle flours for breads and home-made pastas, honey truffle mustards, balsamic vinegars with white truffle infusions, truffle-water vinaigrettes, truffle honey for foie gras or cheese plates, and many more unique delicacies. And all of these are now available on Samui.

       Which brings us back to Claudio Cerquetti again. Claudio is a photographer and writer, with 25 years experience of marketing-photography and editorial posts, 26 books published in Italy, Japan and America, and many years teaching photography at The Academy of Rome. And, over the last several years, he’s earned the reputation of being the man with the camera on Samui. His company, ‘Fantasy at Work’, has become the number to ring when you want high-quality shots for advertising or general PR purposes. His work has taken him to just about every hotel and resort on the island, and to their restaurants, too.

       He’s from Italy and, as it happens, his family has been ‘farming’ truffles in the region of Umbria since 1911. They work closely with the SabatinoTartufi company and its president, Federico Balestra. For years the family has been keen for Claudio to act as their ambassador in Thailand – pressing him to go about establishing an outlet for the company and its products. But Claudio is based on Samui. And, as with all wise men everywhere, he knows that it’s only ever good to strike when the iron is hot. “It’s all about contacts,” he explained. “That and reputation, too. It would take me years of appointments and interviews to work ‘blind’ in a place like Bangkok, for instance. But here on Samui I’m established and everyone knows my name and reputation. So they’ll listen when I tell them about something new. This is the first outlet of SabatinoTartufi in Thailand. And it’s here, on Samui!”

      The more cynical amongst you will already be nodding, as you’ve heard it all before – the sales talk, the ‘pitch’. But the proof of the pudding (or truffle, even!) is wholly in the eating. And if I tell you that, after Claudio decided that the time was right and he began to canvas his potential customers, he collected firm orders from 28 hotels and resorts within three weeks, then there’s no denying that truffle fever has firmly arrived on Samui.

      Don Lawson is President of the Samui Culinary Circle (SCC), an assemblage of the island’s chefs, F&B managers and suppliers. And, as such, he’s welcomed the island’s latest culinary benefit. “The entire range is most impressive,” he commented, “and a lot of our members have jumped at the chance of the greater creativity that this allows. The truffle flour, for instance, can be used to make pasta or batter, and the oil, 12 years aged balsamic vinegars with white truffle infusion, salt and honey can all be adapted in the same way. These are top quality products: they retain their pungent aroma over a period of time, and even the packaging and presentation is nothing less than boutique.” And to top it all off, all products distributed by Truffles Exclusive are 100% organic and approved by both the FDA and USDA.

      Truffles are unpredictable little creatures, here today and gone next week. They’re hard to hunt for and harder to maintain. They’re not quite worth their weight in gold but, as Truffle King Claudio proclaims, “ . . . the treasure hunt has ended!” Thanks to him there are now innumerable instances of prime ‘trufficulture’ available on Samui. It’s a national ‘first’ and there are already plans in place to distribute these products throughout the rest of Thailand. It’s not quite the same as gold dust but, thanks to Claudio Cerquetti and his new company, ‘Truffles Exclusive’, it’s true to say that you can now find such ‘diamonds’ in many of the kitchens, right here on Samui!

      But every night’s a great night to come down to Drink Gallery, not just special occasions. With exquisite cocktails and a fantastic ambience, this new venue is just what discerning drinkers in Chaweng have been looking for.

 

Rob De Wet


 


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