January 17, 2012
Napa Truffle Festival a feast of food, wine and science

>Truffle Guinea.JPGOne of the most precious and unique - and therefore expensive - delicacies in the global marketplace is the truffle. Black truffles retail for about $1,700 a pound; white truffles cost around $4,500 a pound.

Truffles may not look like much, but for centuries they've been a treasured ingredient in haute cuisine. Master chefs call them "the diamonds of the kitchen."

A truffle is a type of mushroom that grows underground, usually close to oak and hazelnut trees. Dogs commonly are used by Italian and French truffle-hunters to help locate them in the wild and dig them up.

That info and so much more was part of the second annual Napa Truffle Festival, which ran from last Friday through Monday. Various a la carte packages were available for truffle-centric meals, wine-tastings, winery tours and cooking demonstrations.

After missing last year's festival, we made a point of attending Sunday's event in the art-filled Vineyard Room at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. There, guest chef Suzette Gresham of Acquerello restaurant in San Francisco delivered a 90-minute prep demo of the upcoming luncheon. She and winery chef Jeff Mosher masterminded the menu. Each dish was paired with a different Mondavi wine, culminating in the 1996 cabernet sauvignon reserve.

At the brief wine-tasting reception before lunch, our group sampled the veal carpaccio we'd watched Gresham assemble as part of her demo.

"Raw veal? Eww!" a woman in the first row had exclaimed as Gresham chopped the veal into bits and added fresh herbs, seasonings and lemon juice.
"Do you eat sushi?" the smiling Gresham asked her.
"Well, yes..." the woman said.
Well, then.

The lunch began with salmon carpaccio drizzled with truffle vinaigrette, moved to beef-filled cannelloni with shaved truffles, continued to stuffed breast of guinea hen formed into sausages and topped with more truffle shavings (pictured), and wound up with cheese and candied celery with truffle honey, and a taste of truffle gelato.

We sat at a table with Robert Chang, managing director of the American Truffle Company. On Saturday, he had led a seminar titled "The Economics of Truffle Cultivation."

Essentially, Chang explained, ATC can set you up to cultivate truffles on your property. First you plant trees with truffle spore-infused roots, then you wait three to five years. Truffle cultivation began in New Zealand and Australia in the 1990s, before ATC was formed. A few of ATC's clients were at the luncheon, including couples from North Carolina and an island off the Swedish coast.

As a shocking aside over lunch, Chang informed us that truffle oil contains no truffles. Rather, the olive-oil base is artificially flavored with synthetic chemicals that smell and taste like real truffles.

Also present (part of the time underneath our table) was Rico the exuberant truffle-hunting dog, attached by leash to Bill Collins of Martinez. Rico's breed is called "lagotto romagnolo," a water-lover that has taken to the art and sport of truffle-hunting. Email the canine at

On Saturday, Rico gave a demonstration of his truffle-hunting abilities at the Robert Sinskey Vineyards. That's where the festival-goers went on a tour of the winery's truffle orchard.

Yes, the third annual festival is a year off, but from what we saw and tasted Sunday, we're marking our calendars now.

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