The festival got started last Friday, with a reception at La Toque restaurant, and continued over the weekend with truffle-centric seminars, winery tours, food-and-wine pairings, a winemaker dinner, a truffle orchard tour and a mushroom-foraging excursion.
Today, the free Festival Marketplace is taking over the Oxbow Public Market in the town of Napa, with cooking demonstrations, winetastings ($25), special truffle-accented dishes, and a cornucopia of local foodstuffs and wines for sale.
The festival sells out early each year, bringing foodies from all over California and a few foreign countries. It's a big deal. Remember, truffles are delicacies in the global marketplace. Black truffles retail for about $1,700 a pound; white truffles cost around $4,500 a pound. For centuries, truffles have been a treasured ingredient in haute cuisine, prized by master chefs around the world.
On Sunday, we caught the truffle festival luncheon at the Beringer winery in St. Helena, which included an informative tour of the caves. A day trip to the winery is a treat any time. The grounds are gorgeous, the winetasting is fine and the history is fascinating (the winery dates from the 1870s; www.beringer.com).
Lunch was served in the refurbished all-wood-and-windows Hudson House. There, Michelin star-winning guest chef Nico Chessa of Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica delivered an hourlong cooking demonstration of the upcoming luncheon. He and winery chef Maurine Sarjeant masterminded the four-course menu. Each dish was paired with a different Beringer reserve wine (one chardonnay, two cabernet sauvignons), culminating in the 2007 Nightingale dessert wine - a blend of botrytis sauvignon blanc and semillion.
The lunch began with citrus-marinated Arctic char, and moved to to chick pea crespella (crepe) with mushrooms (pictured), and Kurobuta pork sausage with polenta. It finished with almond-and-truffle chocolate tortino with elder flower ice cream and berries. Of course, everything was topped with shavings of black truffles.
We chatted with Robert Chang, managing director of the American Truffle Company, co-sponsor of the festival. His company sets up truffle-cultivation programs on private properties via planting trees with truffle spore-infused roots. The company has a presence in 23 countries, he said, with orchards numbering "in the teens" in the U.S. An Australian orchard harvested its first truffle crop recently; the U.S. orchards are still two to three years away from production, he said.
Last year, Chang shocked us with this bit of information: Truffle oil contains no truffles. Rather, the olive-oil base is artificially flavored with synthetic chemicals that smell and taste like real truffles.
The fourth annual festival is a year off, true, but it would be wise to start planning now.