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Rachel Roddy: An A to Z of Pasta

Mar 27, ’21

Featured in 8th
edition of Luxeat Insider

By Phoebe Hunt

Photo by Rachel Roddy

There is perhaps no better way to tell the story of Italy’s culinary diversity than through pasta. Not only are there many hundreds of different shapes originating from the country’s 20 regions – often with multiple different names depending on where they’re being eaten – each pasta shape forms part of the jigsaw that is Italy’s complex food history over the last few thousand years. 

Rachel Roddy, one of the best food writers of our generation, has taken on the task of telling at least one part of this puzzle through her most recent book, An A to Z of Pasta, which will be published in June. Rachel has lived in Italy for many years and made a career documenting her food adventures and recipes in her much-loved weekly Guardian column, as well as a number of cookbooks. Through the lens of pasta, Rachel explores 50 different recipes with 50 different stories, travelling from pasta factories in Campania to family homes in Liguria, and everywhere in between. We sit down with Rachel Roddy for a (socially distanced) espresso in Testaccio, the vibrant quarter of Rome that she calls home.

OK, talk to us about pasta!

Well first of all, there are 350 to 600 pasta shapes with 1,300 identified names, so how on earth do you tell a story of pasta? It’s very, very hard to find patterns, and even when you do they’re sort of confusing, with so much cross-contamination and so many hundreds of strands and influences. What’s more, the story of pasta is not linear at all, despite what some people would have you believe. 

Photo from “An A-Z of Pasta” by Rachel Roddy

So, how have you categorised them and fitted them all into a book? 

I decided I would tell 50 stories about 50 shapes, which would fit together like a jigsaw to form a story (which is not to say the be all and end all definitive guide) of pasta. And once we had this sort of common red thread to connect them all together, we gained momentum and it was actually quite easy to find the shapes I needed to tell this story. So it’s an A-Z: A is for Alfabeto, Z is for Ziti. I felt like a detective at times. It’s all about finding patterns, and it’s exciting when that happens.The book comes together as a series of short stand-alone essays, with a collection of classic recipes. 

It’s less of a travel memoir than maybe my first two books were. There’s a lot of information, but it’s also a fun read. It wasn’t my position to be a definitive expert in all Italian food, and I hope the book shows that we don’t always need to take cooking rules too seriously. 

“An A to Z of Pasta” by Rachel Roddy

So, what about the origins of pasta? 

It’s such a big topic. The story of pasta is the story of Italy, and the world, because of course they’re all interconnected. The most common argument is that pasta evolved from Roman Lagana and Arab Itriyya, and out of those shapes everything else formed over the century. But things were constantly being cross-pollinated… orecchiette probably came from the French, for example.

There are seven or eight really great scholarly books out there about the history of pasta. A particularly good one is by French and Italian author Silvano Serventi, simply called “Pasta.” It weaves through history and also draws a parallel story with Chinese noodles, but I haven’t done any criss-crossing there as it’s too huge a topic.

Which pasta shapes do you particularly love? 

My favourite shapes are probably rigatoni or paccheri, which are big flappy tubes about the circumference of a 50p piece, a couple of inches long.Typically they’re from Campania, and they’re served with ragu or stuffed with different ingredients. The name is onomatopoeic from the Neapolitan dialect from paccharia, which means slap, because of the slapping sound they make when they’re being eaten. It’s a lovely shape to understand the importance of really good quality pasta. It’s so nutty and delicious and substantial when it’s done well. 

What about pasta sauces? How important do you think it is to serve specific pasta with a specific sauce? 

Rules are the total antithesis of Italian food anyway because it is all about home cooking, which is based on resourcefulness and mild anarchy.

The best example I can give for this is cacio e pepe, which in Rome is made with the canonical shape of tonnarelli, which is actually spaghetti alla chitarra, which was once known as maccheroni alla chitarra and is where all pasta came from for a very long time. But loads of people like it with spaghetti. Or bucatini which are slightly thicker and have a hole running through the middle. Or rigatoni tubes. Or even gnocchi! And in the end of that you sort of go “yeah, whatever.” It’s funny, and you’ve got to laugh at it – opinions and passions run so high around pasta. 

And how does this tell a story about Italian food and ‘authenticity’ on a bigger scale? 

In my book there’s a chapter called C for Casarecce – a lovely twisted ribbon pasta that looks like an S cross section – where I touch on exactly this. Like everything in Italian food, there are rules, and then you realise the opposite is sometimes completely true. 

Oretta Zanini De Vita was a great Italian food writer, she wrote The Encyclopedia of Pasta which is a masterpiece, and spent years and years travelling all over Italy recording oral history and delving into old cookbooks. She eventually came to the conclusion that really any shape goes with any sauce, and that anybody who is saying anything otherwise is overthinking. But… she always says ‘but’… there are some things to think about. Of course there are some good ideas and guidelines, because with a lot of shapes and sauces the reason they’re so inextricably linked is because they evolved together. 

Photo from “An A-Z of Pasta” by Rachel Roddy

And what about when you’re cooking, do you stick to the rules? 

I’ve always been a believer that when it comes to food ‘rules’, the opposite is often true in Italy. Those strict food rules are sort of preposterous anyway. Rules are the total antithesis of Italian food anyway because it is all about home cooking, which is based on resourcefulness and mild anarchy. This idea of “how things should be” is actually “how we need them to be.” It’s the idea of preserving things and our childhood, which is sometimes very traditional. For example, all the rules around tagliatelle and tortellini in Bologna, the idea that things should be a certain way, is totally ingrained as a sort of tribalism.

All of those things – from grandmas to checked tablecloths to old men in piazzas to coffee to ice cream – they’re all absolutely true. The problem with them is that they become a lie when that’s the only view you look at.

So on the one hand you’ve got the idea of clinging onto traditions to preserve them, and on the other there’s innovation and letting go. Where do you sit in this debate? 

I think you can hold onto both. Tradition and “how things were” is a slippery concept anyway, and I do think the mythology around food is quite powerful here in Italy, but I think with the whole idea of clinging onto the past, I find myself wanting to ask “which past?”. It’s interesting to look at dates of when pasta dishes started to be eaten here, it’s often SO late. Even spaghetti and tomato sauce wasn’t a national dish apart from in Naples until the 1960s. Even the word spaghetti only came into the Italian language in 1859. I love Massimo Montanari, an Italian historian who writes beautifully about exactly this. He uses spaghetti al pomodoro as an example for the ultimate italian dish, when actually spaghetti is from the arabs and tomatoes are from the Americans, but those two things met here and invented a new tradition. Or for example, you can make pesto in your grandmother’s marble pesto, or you can make it in a food processor. So in my book I was able to offer two recipes, and you can hold onto them both – they’re not mutually exclusive. Now, of course, these dishes have all got ancient ancestors, but I think the point is, we’ve got to examine what we mean by the past. I totally believe you can hold two things together.

And what about as a journalist writing about life in Italy more generally? 

You find food represented in every culture. I do think, without over-romanticising it, that Rome for example is such an edible city. Ingredients are so integral to the threads to the past and they feel part of the fabric of the city, so eating them feels to be eating your way in.

Well the concept is just the same. We know the currency and images and what’s expected when you’re writing about Italian food for international audiences. The point is that all of those things – from grandmas to checked tablecloths to old men in piazzas to coffee to ice cream – they’re all absolutely true. The problem with them is that they become a lie when that’s the only view you look at. That’s the problem with any cliche, when it stops us seeing beyond them. 

I always remember walking through Monteverdi near where I live and seeing this incredible orange tree, one of the most magnificent scenes against a yellow building, and then right below it was a huge pile of rubbish and human excrement. I felt like I was having a profound moment when I started thinking about what you take a photograph of, and the importance of capturing Rome in a balanced way. The other extreme is the journalist who’ll say “damn the pretty cliches, we’re going to write about bad cornetti and crime”. You want to say, “hang on, we can hold it all together”. And that’s what i’m aiming for with my pasta book. 

Photo by Rachel Roddy

And finally then, why is food such a good metaphor for Italian life? 

What’s so extraordinary about using food to understand a place and therefore a country and therefore the world and therefore humanity (without being overly ridiculous!) is that in Italy the continuous historic threads with food are so evident. When you learn about the founding myth of Rome in 753BC with Romulus and Remus, and you look at paintings and mosaics, you have pictures of cicoria, bitter greens, and ricotta, and you can find these threads all the way through to the modern day. For me they’ve always been the easiest to understand because I love to eat. You find food represented in every culture. I do think, without over-romanticising it, that Rome for example is such an edible city. Ingredients are so integral to the threads to the past and they feel part of the fabric of the city, so eating them feels to be eating your way in. If you look at a Roman menu in a trattoria, you can use it to write 3000 years of history with the ingredients. The same with Emilia-Romagna, and the same in Florence with the Medici, and the Etruscans before them – you can use it to map history. Ricotta olive oil, pasta, they’re all important.

On the Grill: taming fire and flames with Chef Bittor Arguinzoniz

Mar 8, ’21

Interviews
Spain

The original article is published in Más Raro Que magazine – The Gastronomy issue (Sep. 2020)

There’s no one quite like him. For chef extraordinaire Bittor Arguinzoniz, food is religion and ingredients are sacred. He mastered the art of grilling any food, capturing the heat of the fire and honing the skills to achieve legendary levels of cooking. As a result, his famed Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Region was voted the third best restaurant in the world according to World’s 50 Best, and he’s gathered a cult of followers from across the globe. ‘MÁS RARO QUE’ magazine catch up with Arguinzoniz to hear what inspires him to keep grilling every day.

“At work with the embers is where I feel happy, and I try to do it in the best way possible,” says Arguinzoniz, speaking with a humility that has characterised throughout his journey. “When you work with the same tools and every day you do the same thing, you can get tired of it. And that day came to me and I asked myself: ‘Why can’t other ingredients be cooked on the grill?’”

Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

Those who have had the good fortune to eat at his restaurant Asador Etxebarri in Axpe, Spain know these principles well: Arguinzoniz breaks all preconceptions, using coals to cook mushrooms and elvers, artichokes, thistles and borage, foie gras, sea bream, sea urchins and even egg yolks. All cooked with special utensils, designed by the chef himself, to get the most out of them on the grill.

Based on a winning formula of fire and effort, Asador Etxebarri has come to be recognized as the third best restaurant in the world according to the World’s 50 Best guide. Amazingly, winning this award has not altered the soul of the humble Basque restaurant in the slightest. Arguinzoniz alone is still in charge of the grill, because after 30 years in front of the embers he has not yet found a successor. He knows that his success does not depend on good marketing, but rather on doing a good job in the kitchen and leaves diners satisfied. This is why he dispenses with communication agencies, social networks and advertisements. Arguinzoniz makes bread, beer, sausage and mozzarella, made with the milk of his own Italian buffaloes brought from Lazio. He raises and feeds chickens in the open air, and harvests vegetables from his garden at their optimum point, all efforts to ensure the highest quality. Allegedly, he even rebuilt the farmhouse with his own hand. It was previously the bar and the grocery store in Axpe, the village where his restaurant is located.

Asador Etxebarri. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

In fact, Arguinzoniz practices a freedom that makes him the strangest of all chefs. “From the outside, Bittor seems strange because he is a purist as well as a perfectionist, because he does what he wants and leads the life he wants,” says Juan Pablo Cardenal, who got to know him closely during the preparation of the book Extebarri (published in 2017, available in Spanish, English, German and Italian), “In today’s gastronomic world where what prevails is the accessory, he focuses on what is important: on the raw material, on the seasons, on something as important as chewing. That is not what is fashionable, and that is precisely what makes it rare.”

At work with the embers is where I feel happy, and I try to do it in the best way possible.

Mariano Herrera, who also photographed him for that work, was similarly impressed. “Being at the head of the third best kitchen on the planet, he does not fail to put himself in front of his grills  everyday. If for some reason he is unable to do so, the grill will remain closed. Submitting to such a commitment shows an overwhelming discipline.” Iñaki Arteta, director of the documentary Bittor Arguinzoniz, was able to verify this same discipline in Living the Silence, 2019: “He’s someone who can’t sit still…. The year that we have spent visiting him – keeping our distance – has shown us a man who is intellectually intrepid and very reflective.”

Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

However, the chef’s perception of himself is very different: “I am a normal person and what I do is totally normal. I do what I believe in, and this is the path that I have chosen for a long time and that I continue to walk under my own criteria,” says Arguinzoniz during this interview.  He’s unwaveringly clear about his guiding principles: “I have never worked for validation from the media, a guide or anyone else, and I never will. The only qualification I seek is that of the customer who comes here and that qualification for me is through his happiness, the pleasure he feels here at mealtime. And nothing else.”

I am a normal person and what I do is totally normal. I do what I believe in, and this is the path that I have chosen for a long time and that I continue to walk under my own criteria.

Asador Etxebarri swims against the tide at a time when haute cuisine is defined by the belief that the more technology the better to intensely transform the ingredient. Where the trompe l’oeil is king, Arguinzoniz plants a T-bone steak. Where there is Roner, Arguinzoniz has oak wood. Some point out that there is no value in the use of such an ancient technique, and yet they are wrong: there is as much or more value in this perfect control of fire than in the spherification of the olive. “For me, this technique, although primitive, is modern,” concludes the chef.

Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

Whatever the critics may say, the success of Etxebarri is indisputable. The restaurant Arguinzoniz started in 1990 had strong roots in Basque gastronomy and the noble purpose of being a sustainable business. Today, reservations sell out within four minutes of opening, at the end of every month. “Everything is based on a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, trying to do the things I like in the world of this ancestral technique. But, in reality, for me, success is the sum of small daily achievements,” Arguinzoniz explains. Those small daily achievements are adjustments, changes and improvements.

Although it may seem that Etxebarri is a static restaurant where control prevails over evolution, it is quite the opposite. “Our job is not to create one thing and stay there, but to improve everything we do on a daily basis. At the same time, if we can continue to create and innovate in the world of embers, much better,” the Chef points out.

Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

Over the past 30 years, the restaurant that began with grill and griddle cuisine has become a steakhouse, going beyond the classic cod, chop, turbot, bream to abandon charcoal in favor of oak wood for fish and seafood, and olive wood and vine shoots for meat. Arguinzoniz has worked to create independent ovens for a greater mastery of fire and to design the most perfect utensils for cooking each product. In fact, the changes are daily: no two pieces of meat or fish are ever the same, but he always serves them all perfectly grilled.

Everything is based on a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, trying to do the things I like in the world of this ancestral technique. But, in reality, for me, success is the sum of small daily achievements.

At the foot of Mount Anboto, which Arguinzoniz hikes up every Monday come rain or shine, the solid-walled farmhouse will remain the only Asador Etxebarri as long as he is in charge. “To all those who ask me why I don’t open another restaurant, I say no,” he says. “My cuisine is linked to the roots of where I was born, where I have lived, in the middle of nature; it is the environment, it is the rusticity. At the end of the day, cooking is feeling and my feelings are here, in Axpe; that’s why this cuisine only makes sense here. Feelings cannot be exported anywhere. Nowadays we no longer think about feelings or anything else: the only thing we think about is money, business. That is not my case. This is my way of life. And I’ll go on as long as my body can take it.”

Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

GRILLED EGG YOLK WITH WHITE TRUFFLE

Bittor has a special appreciation for something as seemingly simple as egg yolks, which he uses to prepare a dish of grilled egg yolk with white truffle. “First, I love it because it comes from my own hens, which are free-range in the countryside. And then because of the technique we use: grilling. The impossible becomes reality in Bittor’s hands; the simple ingredient takes on a new dimension of complexity. The idea, which came about in May 2019, has led to the invention of a new utensil suitable for roasting the yolk on the embers without damaging it. The operation consists of cocooning the yolk in ball-shaped filters, like those used in tea infusions. In this filter, which Bittor calls a teapot, two bars are inserted to hold the yolk, which in turn are anchored to a motor that turns them gently, just like a spit. “When you have a product like the egg I have and you want to grill it, necessity forces you to invent these things,” says Bittor. To finish off the dish, he shaves sheets of white truffle.

Magazine: Más Raro Que – The Gastronomy issue (Sep. 2020)Publishers: El Perro Verde & McCannCurator: Jon SarabiaPhotographer: Joan Pujol-CreusText: Rosa Molinero

Confessions of a Michelin Inspector

Feb 28, ’21

Interviews
Podcasts

Gaining a Michelin star, or three, isn’t simply a mark of excellence, it means your restaurant status goes automatically from a great choice to a must. We had the great pleasure to speak to Chris Watson, ex-Michelin Guide inspector, about the complexity of this rating system, the weight of allocating stars, what it takes to get the highly-coveted three star rating at the oldest European hotel and restaurant reference guide. Hailing from Scotland where, as a child, he was regaled with some of the world’s best meats and produce, Chris spent his Michelin tenure covering the UK and Europe regions. He is as passionate and insightful on the topic of cuisine as ever, despite leaving the guide to become an entrepreneur, food writer and consultant, now based in Bangkok. 

Chris Watson

The whole interview you can listen here.

Can you tell us about the recruitment process to be a Michelin inspector?

It started with an interview process, which was gruelling, around 150-200 questions about food, answers should be written down in one and a half hours. Then, an interview with the deputy editor and various other staff and then the final kind of blessing, you go for lunch with the editor. We went to “La Tante Claire” which was Pierre Koffmann’s three-star restaurant, two-stars at that time. So you are asked questions during lunch, it was daunting, but I got through it.

You don’t get rich when you are a Michelin inspector, obviously, it’s about quality of life and the experience. The average length of stay in the position is 5 years, very few do more than that. Largely your seniority comes from length of service, you join as an inspector, you leave as an inspector. But your opinions and the restaurants you visit, you gain more experience and you get better restaurants to go to, or have more complicated decisions to take. I did about 4.5 years, after that time you’ve nearly reached the end. 

You don’t get rich when you are a Michelin inspector, obviously, it’s about quality of life and the experience.

What does an inspector’s schedule look like?

The schedule is very tight. You have to do largely two weeks away per month, with almost no weekends. If you go to Ireland or Channel  islands, those are expected to be three-week trips. three weeks alone, with probably the only highlight, in the middle of your trip – you will do a Michelin star restaurant in your region, and one of the other inspectors will come and join you. Usually, I had to dine alone, for breakfast, lunch and dinner…

And the restaurants you would go, are not the most fabulous as we all imagine…

There are many good restaurants without a star which you are quite happy to go to. And there are great opportunities, you go and stay in country house hotels, small establishments, where the room, in those days (20 years ago) was 150-200 pounds a night, these days 500-600 pounds a night. You are staying there, your expenses covered with “American Express”. My expenses were 2000-3000 pounds per month, my salary was 600-700 pounds. You are kind of in a different world, it’s truly a fabulous experience!

What people don’t understand fully, your 10 meals a week, you are probably lucky to get one starred restaurant a week or a star contender, and the other meals are pretty mediocre. And that’s kind of a drudge. And you get into awkward situations, when at the end of you finishing your region, you have an extra restaurant to go to where you haven’t factored it in. So you do dinner at 6 pm, and you do another dinner at 8 pm. So it’s lunch, dinner and dinner. I have done it a couple of times. You know, you are careful, you eat half of the dessert, you eat sensibly. I’m not talking about eating at Michelin starred restaurants twice in a row, usually, these are fairly ordinary restaurants. 

What people don’t understand fully, your 10 meals a week, you are probably lucky to get one starred restaurant a week or a star contender, and the other meals are pretty mediocre.

Did you feel that sometimes there is too much food? That your health would be affected…

Yes, it was a lot of food. Obviously, when you are younger, you don’t feel it as much. I know older inspectors who were mentoring me, because you are not allowed to go alone for the first 6 months, you always go with two or three different ones.  And the older guys who are more senior, you know, when you are over say 35 years old, it’s harder to shed the weight. In those days, drink and driving wasn’t a factor, so half a bottle of wine with dinner every night, and if you have a sexy restaurant for lunch the next day, you have something similar there…

What makes a difference for Michelin to award one, two or three stars?You enter a restaurant which you don’t know, and what is the most important for a Michelin inspector? What do you look at first?

Of course, over the years Michelin has spoken more and more about the fact that the stars are a reflection of the cuisine, not the service, it’s all about what is on the plate. However, I would kind of temper that, because what they say, they do, because there are, for example, pubs who have one or two stars. It is about what is on the plate. Even nowadays and equally 20 years ago, chefs built their resumes, and if they acquired stars before or were in  “50 Best ”, they would doubtless end up in a high calibre restaurant. So of course, you kind of know when you are visiting a brand new restaurant. You have done your homework and what calibre is the chef, where he came from. But still, the most important thing is what is on the plate. And yes, trends come and go, to be classic or the more modern approach, like Heston Blumenthal’s style. You know, when I met Heston, “Fat Duck” was a pub serving steak and chips, later he moved in a different direction, to much more modern techniques. But it’s still all about what is on the plate. 

One star restaurant versus no star restaurant, you know one star restaurant carefully uses produce, that should be seasonal. It’s not about sustainability (that is a different topic), it’s about what is the best available locally. Being in London you can of course, use Scottish langoustine. In London, for a pseudo-French style restaurant, I don’t think it would be appropriate to use a Japanese fish. But simply put, it’s expected in Japanese restaurants in London to use Japanese fish. I think over the years the Guide has become much more receptive to not just European cooking but also tried to highlight the best Indian, the best Thai, the best Chinese, the best Japanese. 20 years ago it was all a little bit more limited. 

So just in short, what does it take to get one, two or three stars?

For one star, definitely should use local products, care, good depth of flavour in the sauces, careful presentation and service that matches.

The most important thing is what is on the plate.

Two stars is a step up, you are looking for more complexity in a dish. You’re looking for sometimes multiple ingredients, or techniques that are very difficult to do: make something that is incredibly complex, but that looks incredibly simple. Taste and balance. I look at the difference between the sauce of a one-star dish and the sauce of a two star dish. Nothing is ever written in stone. When you or I go for dinner, the difference between a one-star dish and two-star dish,  when you look at it, you can look at the plate and say wow! At one star you don’t necessarily say that. Secondly, saucewise, when you taste the sauce at a one star, it should be deep, clearly identified taste, good flavour, umami. In a two star dish, it should have multilayers, you should be tasting different components, there should be an aftertaste, which was not there in perhaps the one star dish. It is a little difficult to answer. In short, it should be a more complex dish.

Three stars, for me… I still travel a lot and eat at two or three star restaurants on a regular basis. For me, three stars is all about consistency. Of course, getting three stars for a simple rustic pub – no, they are not gonna do that. It’s the grand class, Crillon, Tour d’Argent, Bocuse, Hotel de Paris,… I don’t think rustic pubs are ready to get three stars. But then again, you look at the French guide, issued very recently, there is Alexandre Mazzia, that is a good example. There is always an exception, I think you always have to look to a guide, which has to evolve, like the first vegan star… They have to keep up to date, the green award, the green star… I think they are recognizing sustainability, they have to keep pace, at the end of the day there is a huge population of vegans and vegetarians. Now all serious restaurants offer vegetarian menus, before, if you are a vegetarian, you would be happy to get an omelette. So I think the whole world is changing and a Guide must adapt to the trends.

The challenge is getting a third star. Between one and two is very easy to identify from a diner’s perspective, in my opinion. Where there are much more complex dishes, a much more elevated experience, more complicated, more depth. It’s all about cooking. The difference between two stars and three stars, for me, is about consistency, for most, menus themselves don’t change very much. If you look at the restaurants who are awarded three stars it’s all about consistency, between two and three stars. It’s faultless, absolutely faultless, all the time.

How has the guide changed? You were an inspector in the nineties. Those old-school days we imagine Pierre Koffmann, Joel Robuchon still had his three stars then… How do you think the guide has changed over the years? Because you still do eat out a lot.

I think that the guide has made strenuous efforts to maintain its relevance, with linkups with a table booking engine, Tablet hotels and so on. I think they also recognized that the grand palaces, a large number of which particularly exist in France, have perhaps not maintained their standards or perhaps standards have naturally elevated so not today as worthy of three stars as they perhaps were. They have tried to be sensitive to the removal of the third star and how they handle that to avoid potentially tragic consequences. Where fathers handed over to sons or daughters, they used that opportunity to demote them to two stars and said as a second-generation, you need to earn it by yourself rather than taking it away. There are several examples. Bocuse was another sad but perhaps needed change.

I think classics have their place. I believe that there is still a place for these restaurants, for traditional recipes, which truly haven’t changed, like L’Ambroisie.

He had his stars for decades, right?

Yes, and particularly sad for me as it was arguably the best meal of my entire life.

I must say I was lucky to go there a year ago before lockdown, it was my third time, and it was brilliant. Even, if they were already demoted to two stars.

Honestly, I had a fabulous meal there, I can describe you every single course. Later, five or ten years later, I was working in a Relais et Chateaux in Singapore, trying to do promotions with some chefs, so I was at Troisgros, I met the father and the son at the bar, and we chit-chatted, and they asked me some questions as a former Michelin inspector, one was “What was your best meal?”, so I described it in detail, the meal I had at Bocuse. Comprising a fantastic meal, describing absolutely awesome dishes in detail. And then I felt a tap on my shoulder, and Paul Bocuse was standing behind me listening to my story. And then it was his 60th or 70th year birthday, so he invited me to join a family dinner. I have a picture with me, Troisgros, Bocuse and his wife.

I think classics have their place. I believe that there is still a place for these restaurants, for traditional recipes, which truly haven’t changed, like L’Ambroisie.  When I go to London I invariably try to go to new restaurants, I love Claude Bosi, and Core.  My favourite restaurant in the UK is Waterside Inn in Bray. It still has three stars. Is it a leading innovative cuisine? Maybe not, but for me, it is just a world class experience, classic recipes prepared faultlessly, effortless service and truly memorable.

What do you think is Michelin’s role? Is it still as relevant as it was 30 years ago?

The Michelin guide is as respected as it always has been, regardless that occasionally chefs are sending back stars or not wanting to be featured in the guide. Handing back the stars, I find it overdramatic, still until this day, regardless of what chefs say in public, 99.99% of them dream about stars. Stars are recognition for their undoubted talents, and for their team. Secondly, it fills restaurants, the minute you get a star, the restaurant is full for weeks and months. So I don’t really think that anybody doesn’t want them from the industry’s perspective. I think one of the challenges for diners is that now there are many different forms of media available, which was not the case twenty years ago.

What makes one good at this unusual profession? 

You know, sometimes people ask me, what makes you a good Michelin inspector for the guide? It’s about the volume of meals you eat, not anything else. That is what enables you, if you eat every day in Michelin star restaurants, to talk knowledgeably. When I go socially, friends occasionally ask “tell me about this…”. It’s about eating at El Bulli one night and Can Roca the next and then you can talk, cause nobody does that except Michelin Inspectors, and extremely rich people who obviously don’t move in the same circles.

The Michelin guide is as respected as it always has been, regardless that occasionally chefs are sending back stars or not wanting to be featured in the guide. Handing back the stars, I find it overdramatic, still until this day, regardless of what chefs say in public, 99.99% of them dream about stars.

When you look at the food writers, these famous guys they eat in various places, if you look at all these reviewers, (take away all the drama of the article which is written, so they can sell it to the newspapers and people find it entertaining) because they eat so many meals, they are pretty intelligent about food. 

What, in your opinion, should Michelin focus on now?

I think Michelin should try to maintain their relevancy by focusing solely on their star classifications and avoid adding new ones which attempt to expand their awards but I think slightly cheapen their cachet. They have always been understated, almost secretive and this mystery combined with their well earned unwavering objectivity is why they continue to succeed. They have developed a digital section as social media channels have expanded, however I don’t find the quality of writing particularly attractive nor indeed, their collaboration promotions. I also sense that their additional accolades, service of the year and young chef of the year, whilst no doubt broaden the guide’s appeal don’t for me add value to the Guide’s reputation. And in fact across many countries confusion surrounds the differences between a Plate and a Bib which they have yet to explain clearly. In Thailand, existing plate restaurants, newly awarded with Bibs, were officially referred to promotions…

I would also comment on the street food angle, because we have one street food restaurant here in Bangkok which has one star.  Is it truly a benchmark, worthy of comparison with other one star restaurants; I am unconvinced. In their steps to be more appealing, they in the past introduced an award which is almost a star but not quite there yet. The problem is, when you go to eat at the restaurants, you have to be very careful.  I obviously have some knowledge, but most diners can’t tell only by looking at the guide who is a contender for two stars, or a contender for three stars. I always felt, one of the weaknesses of the guides in general, you go there, you eat, and you say “that wasn’t really two stars”. You go home, you get a newly published guide and you see that it only has one star now. The guide is a snapshot in time. I think that it is one of the challenges for “100 Best”… My main concern is how you can rank restaurants from one to one hundred, you just can’t! 

So for me, I think Michelin should continue their focus on the stars. You can do the green stars, recognising the trend for sustainability, you can be radical and give the first Indian restaurant three stars, if you like, Chinese, Japanese, wherever. Because they are so conservative when they give two stars to a pub or a very simple sushi bar, everyone thinks wow they are so radical. I think they should carry on doing that, but I’m not convinced about the longevity or value to diners of all the other classifications. The excitement and anticipation each year is all about the stars, and in my opinion, nothing else.

William Sitwell: The History of Eating Out

Feb 13, ’21

Featured in 7th
edition of Luxeat Insider

Like so many people associated with the restaurant world, William Sitwell’s life changed beyond recognition when the pandemic hit last spring. One of the UK’s eminent food critics, he was left wondering what the future of the restaurant world would be, as well as looking back on how eating out has evolved over the decades and centuries that precede us. With an award-winning career in food writing, a number of published books, William’s House Wines founder and with a few guest Master Chef appearances, Sitwell’s most recent book is The Restaurant; A History of Eating Out. Within its pages, he chronicles the fascinating history of one of our favourite pastimes – dining out – and the long journey from Ancient Roman taverns to molecular gastronomy. I had the opportunity to sit down with William (virtually, of course) and find out some of the pivotal moments that have shaped the ‘modern restaurant’ as we know it today.  

William Sitwell (c) Dan Burn-Forti

It’s been a year since the pandemic hit, and of course hospitality has been one of the most affected industries. What do you think the significance of restaurants is in our society in general?

Over the years, restaurants have become a cornerstone of our culture, and you really can’t underestimate their importance in society. They touch us on so many different levels, from entertaining to feeding us, to being a way for individual countries to express themselves as a nation. And I think, COVID aside, Britain offers a wonderful example of the breadth and depth restaurants can have. The different cuisines that are represented and different budgets that are catered for shows that British people are incredibly accepting when it comes to welcoming immigrant food and diversity, because we have unbelievable appetite for variety in all shapes and forms. 

Our food and restaurant culture is a badge of identity, and the broader it is the more interesting that identity is. Restaurants are a huge employer in the UK: Nine million jobs are connected to the hospitality sector, so they’re important economically as well as culturally. Beyond this though, it’s important to remember they’re here to be enjoyed. It’s about being fed, being looked after, not always some frivolous luxury. Fish and chips provide the same function as a posh restaurant in the city: relaxation and switching off. I could chat about the importance of restaurants forever, the pleasure and fun they provide, which is why I’m so worried at the moment about the threat they face.

Our food and restaurant culture is a badge of identity, and the broader it is the more interesting that identity is.

In your book “The History of Eating Out” you talk about the first historical records of restaurants in Pompeii and Ancient Rome. What’s changed over the centuries, and what’s stayed the same? 

I think when you write historical narratives you really need something concrete, so I wasn’t about to go around speculating whether Neanderthals did the washing up together. The thing that’s so extraordinary about Pompeii is that information we have from 79AD the date the city was destroyed, then preserved in volcanic ash. It was frozen in time exactly as it was, so you don’t view it today with some historical lens. And what you discover is that the purpose of hospitality in these early days is exactly the same as it is now. In fact that word hospitality comes from the ancient word, hospitium, and it was a concept enshrined in Roman law. Travelling to and from Rome and to the furthest regions of the empire, you were expected to give and receive that spirit of hospitality. 

Hospitality is always a transaction of sorts, but it was also a very sophisticated scene in ancient Pompeii. There are bars, there are hotels, there are small restaurants with rooms, little taverns and brothels. And I think if you and I were to wake up in Pompeii, we would not feel that it’s too unfamiliar. We would see people from different classes mixing in bars, living and gathering side by side. What’s also interesting is that archaeologists have revealed the rich and poor had similar diets, based on their skeletons and the state of their teeth. The rich may have worn gold, but they ate together cheek to jowl. And there were bars, where the middle classes from across the Roman empire would visit and eat out.

The tablecloth is not necessary for the consumption of food. Neither is a fork or spoon really. You don’t need manners just to eat, but those layers of sophistication are built around food, and became part of its theatre and enjoyment.

Interestingly though, when the empire declined hospitality in Europe seemed to disappear, and we don’t see anything we’d recognise as a restaurant in London until the 1400s.

Why do you think hospitality died out with the Roman Empire?

This is one of the great mysteries. A lack of imagination, poverty, and maybe it’s the case that people tend to open restaurants in times of hope and prosperity. There were taverns and small time pubs in the Middle Ages, but we didn’t see things develop into what we’d call a modern ‘restaurant’ until 18th century Paris and London, really. The French revolution was an extraordinary moment for restaurants, actually, and by the end of the eighteenth century there were nearly 500 restaurants in Paris. Crudely speaking, this is because the revolutionists chopped the heads off all the aristocrats. The servants needed to work, so they went to the cities and they did what they could, they cooked food, they served, and often you find that they open small restaurants in the houses where they’d lived with aristocrats. It’s not the only reason for the growth of restaurants but it certainly contributed. Actually Paris took inspiration from London;  one of the very first famous French restaurants in the 18 century was a place in Paris called La Grande Taverne de Londres, which in fact took inspiration from an establishment in London. 

How about that story about the tablecloth?  You mentioned in your book that it was the beginning of the ‘smart restaurant’.

Well, in that particular chapter on Medieval England I’m searching for some very early roots of smart dining. There is a mention of a tablecloth being unfolded in a place in Westminster in a poem from 1410 called London Lickpenny. You might think that I’m clutching at straws, but what’s interesting is that parliament at that time was evolving in Westminster as democracy was in its infancy. And were there regular parliaments, meetings and debating, a growing sophistication and the beginnings of administration and bureaucracy. So a whole middle class of professionals and lawyers was born, who wanted to hang around somewhere slightly smarter, somewhere that catered to them. So that poem you mentioned, with the unfurling of the table cloth, that’s the first mention that I can find about the tablecloth in English literature. It just gives you the inkling of the fact that there was something smart going on in 1410. 

The tablecloth is not necessary for the consumption of food. Neither is a fork or spoon really. You don’t need manners just to eat, but those layers of sophistication are built around food, and became part of its theatre and enjoyment. A history of restaurants is also a history of etiquette, of the sophistication of society. There are many unnecessary things that we don’t actually need but become fundamental. 

in the UK the industrial revolution was when we saw huge masses of people traveling away from home in order to work. Some would just stay for lunch, some would stay, and when you’re staying away from home you tended to see hospitality cropping up in these places. Eating away gradually became eating out, and it became a necessity but also a pleasure to have that pint of ale in a tavern.

Now, in some ways, we’re going back to being Neanderthals, because of the fast food we eat we don’t need cutlery but just our hands. But we all know how important it is to  sit around a table eating and behaving; it’s civilization. If you can deal with cultural arguments around the table, if you can dine in a civilized fashion and entertain your colleagues, your friends, your guests, then you have the half chance to have a peaceful society. So actually that etiquette is more important than people think, it’s about convening in a safe, polite, civilized space. The more we can break bread with our friends and even our enemies around the table in a civilized way, the more the world has a chance for dialogue and peace. There is a reason why politicians at summits convene for dinner after a day of negotiating; they sit around the table and have dinner and the mood changes and conversation changes. The sip of wine, the taste of the food, brings different reactions to people.

You were also talking about coffee houses. That’s where the first debates happened and the first intellectuals were meeting in Europe. Right?

Absolutely. There were Roman emperors who were trying to ban people meeting in taverns because they thought that sedition would be cultivated. Charles II tried to shut down coffee houses too, because he worried about gossip turning into discontent, to political upheaval and so on. Similarly there were chocolate houses, where the people would meet and discuss completely frivolous things. 

There is a famous quote by A. A. Gill, “What people go out to restaurants for is a good time —not because they are hungry.”. How did eating become more about pleasure than survival?

It’s really tricky to pin this down, but I think people have been eating for pleasure for a very long time. Samuel Johnson talks about the fact that there is no greater pleasure that can be had or found than in an inn. I can’t speak globally here, but in the UK the industrial revolution was when we saw huge masses of people traveling away from home in order to work. Some would just stay for lunch, some would stay, and when you’re staying away from home you tended to see hospitality cropping up in these places. Eating away gradually became eating out, and it became a necessity but also a pleasure to have that pint of ale in a tavern. 

Certainly the 20th century has seen a revolution in eating out across the world. As international travel emerged, as logistics improved, as ingredients were able to arrive very quickly and between nations, there became this great variety of food. The Millennial generation eats out far more than our grandfathers certainly did. So there is now a greater offering of food for pleasure. But, frankly, for as long as we have had tastebuds food has been a pleasure, even if that just means a moment of brief enjoyment eating a fresh juicy berry while hiding from a sabre-toothed tiger. 

But sincerely I’d say for the general public eating out for pure pleasure is really something that’s happened in the past 50 years. And certainly, we see a massive increase in hospitality as leisure during the last 20 years. People are traveling to countries to eat, going  from London to Paris for lunch, flying to Copenhagen for dinner at Noma, even to New York sometimes, and this wasn’t happening until relatively recently.

You have the whole chapter about Ibn Battuta, the first “foodie” who was traveling for food. Can you tell us a bit about this? 

I had a bit of fun there. Ibn Battuta took a gap year in 1325. And returned about 30 years later. He wrote about it in such detail about his travels from North Africa to China. He relied on the hospitality of strangers, and he was eating out for nearly 8 years. It showed great insight to the food that was available in the Old World of the 14th century. He sheds light on different civilizations: there were some people who provided him with food, and some people treated him as food and wanted to eat him. It was an extraordinary time in history.

Who do you think are the most important personalities that shaped the history of gastronomy?

Well, historically, it’s a very difficult question… If you ask me my favorite chefs in history, I would say Marcus Gavius Apicius in the Roman Empire. His book is still in print two thousand years later, and he is a man who mastered the art of sauce. You can tell when the Roman Empire was at its greatest because the sauces were at their thickest and most sophisticated. Apicius was a tremendous foodie. He spent all his money on food, and when he eventually bankrupted himself he invited his friends to a banquet and poisoned himself during desert. He thought ‘If I can’t afford food, I would rather die,’ so he’s a hero of mine.

Apicius cooking

If we come up much closer in time, certainly The Roux brothers (both of whom have sadly died in the last twelve months) had a huge influence in the development of food in Britain after the war. It was a bleak grey period, and at the end of the Sixties these boys turned up. They saw an opportunity, because the food in London was so awful, and they were very excited about this. They were getting awful dinners in London. Their wives couldn’t believe it, asking: “Why are you so happy while eating such terrible food?”. They saw an opportunity to start something new, and they inspired chefs to see food and service as a profession.

In the United States, Alice Waters was hugely influential. She battled against the rise of US fast food culture in the early 70s. She connected diners with farmers. She tried to cut out the traders between them. And she built relationships with those farmers, she nurtured producers, she put their names on her menu. This was at the time of great American counterculture, anti-establishments, anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Artists, photographers and writers wanted her to meet. She also was a great entertainer, she was such a great cook, most of her friends persuaded her to open a restaurant. And among all fast-food, burgers and tacos, came this simplicity. There are so many pivotal figures around the world, but these are who I admire the most.

What are your few favorite restaurants in London?

Umu is a Japanese place that does amazing Kaiseki cuisine.

For classic British food I love Jeremy Lee’s cooking at Quo Vadis.

Any pub that Henry Harris is running, because he is one of the best chefs and restaurateurs for bistro cooking.

I have a friend in town, I would bring them to Chelsea Arts Club, because again, it’s about conviviality, it’s about a good time, and I know I will always have fun there around the big table. 

It depends on one’s mood… Atul Kochhar has a fantastic Indian restaurant called Kanishka in Mayfair, it’s probably my favorite. It has a chicken tikka pie which is just amazing.

The best place for grilled meat I would say is Blacklock. They’re all about chops – lamb chops, beef chops, pork chops.

Talking Truffles with Christopher Poron, Maison Plantin

Feb 13, ’21

Featured in 7th
edition of Luxeat Insider

From Antiquity to today, truffles, the diamonds of the kitchen remain a highly-prized mystery.  While truffles can be cultivated, the harvest is as unpredictable and uncontrollable as anything coming from nature. It is this enigmatic quality, and the unique, deep musky yet indescribable taste, that drives prices upwards of 850 euros per kilo, and for the more expensive Alba truffle 2000-3000 euros per kilo. Maison Plantin, in the heart of France’s Provence region has become the main supplier of truffles to the grand tables of France and around the world, working with renowned chefs such as L’Ambroisie’s Bernard Pacaud, l’Hôtel de Ville’s Franck Giovannini and Ledoyen’s Yannick Alleno. We talk with Christopher Poron who now runs his fathers truffle company with partner Nicolas Rouhier.

Aiste with Plantin owner Christopher Poron

Could you give me the backstory of Maison Plantin and it all started?

The company was founded in 1930 by Marcel Plantin, my father bought the business in 1986. Even if I grew up in a truffle world,  at that time other things were on my mind. When I was 21, I left for the United States, not knowing what I wanted to do. My father asked if I wanted to sell truffles in New York. This is how I started, with 5kg of truffles. My very first customer was Daniel Boulud. They had a special event and they needed 150 pieces of 20gr truffle… So I called my father… it started like that.  I did that for 10 years until I met Nicolas  Rouhier, my associate, along with him, I took over the company in 2009. My father was at retirement age when we started talking about it, so we stepped in and took over my father’s place. Since then we’ve worked at Plantin, and have managed to develop it a lot, especially in terms of exports.

So what is a truffle?

A truffle is an underground mushroom about which we know very little. You have, the most well known black truffles (tuber melanosporum) and white truffles (tuber magnatum pico) – although there are many different varieties. In fact, there are over 100 types but only 5-6 are for gastronomy. Black truffles are mostly from plantations, because we managed to micronize the tree, the truffle spores, and today we plant them. Yet, plantation doesn’t mean that you’re able to control the harvest, not at all, we don’t control the harvest.  We know of a few things to do to encourage mushroom growth, but there are many factors which we can’t control. One of the biggest factors is weather conditions, today the biggest problem we have is climate change. We have much hotter summers than before.  When the temperature on the ground reaches 27-30 degrees, it kills the spores, kills the microzation of the truffles, after that you don’t have truffles. So that’s why warm summers are the worst for what we do. The area is changing a little bit. We can fight it, by putting irrigation in the fields, which is very important today. On a good year when the summer is not too hot with good rain, we can get 10kg a week, and during a very warm summer we may have no harvest at all. There are a few things we can control and a lot we can’t control.

Plantin factory

What is the perfect temperature for a good harvest?

For a good harvest, truffles have to grow with the season. In April we start to see the growing process, we need rain at that time for baby truffles to develop. But we don’t need too much rain, we need just enough to feed the truffle, that’s why we say the rain of 15 of August is very important, because they fill the fields, then some rain in July. And after that, in September and October, we want cold weather to be able to start planting, because it helps develop maturity. But that’s also only what we think. This year for example, we had a big advance in maturity, we had very mature truffles early in the season, in the beginning of December, we also saw some dark truffles, I’m not going to say perfectly dark, but quite dark. And in September October it was not so cold, so that’s why we had this fungus.

Plantin factory

Was this year an especially good truffle harvest?

Yes, harvest was pretty good, but the biggest change was due to the pandemic meaning the demand is much lower. So we keep prices affordable. But overall the harvest and the quality was very good.

And to come back to the climate, what is the best climate? Because some countries in the world grow more truffles than others.

For example today, the best black truffle produce countries are France, Spain, Italy, Australia and Chile is also starting. Today the biggest producer is Spain, because they planted a huge amount of trees in huge land areas.  

Black truffle

What are truffle trees?

Mostly oak trees, green oak, white oak. What we see the most in our region is green oak, although you can also see white oak. Green oak is more robust, it’s resistant to bad climate, less fragile. If you go to Australia, you will see mostly hazelnut. A big problem we have is the biggest competitor for planting trees is wine. The truffle farmers usually don’t have an idea of how much they are going to harvest, what income they are going to have, as compared to wine. With wine they can plan, they will know approximately what income they will have, so people tend to plant vineyards instead of truffle trees. But, my friend who was working with strawberries decided to plant trees, because strawberries are a huge investment every year, in terms of plantation. In terms of truffles, there is a big investment at the beginning, in terms of preparation of the land, and then you have to wait five to seven years to see the first truffles. You have to be ready, you have to be patient, so maybe that’s why farmers plant other things than truffles.

Black truffle

How to tell that it’s a good truffle?

First of all, you check the firmness. A truffle has to be firm, not hard as a rock but just firm, and it should be dark inside. The skin usually has to be black, dark brownish. You check inside, you take a knife and make a small cut inside, you want the flesh of the truffles to be a nice black with nice visible veins. Veins may be thick, but usually quite fine also. Then you’re going to smell the truffle, I personally like it when they have a chocolaty smell, but it can vary a little bit. So mostly you look for firmness, you want your truffle to have proper weight, because the truffle is mostly water, so the longer you keep it, the more it’s going to dry out. This is very true for white truffles from Italy. The weight of a white truffle can be felt more than with a black truffle. With white truffles, from the day you harvest you can lose from 2% to 5% of weight every day. Black truffles don’t lose much weight. So, first of all, you need firmness, colour and size, aroma… The smell shouldn’t be very strong like white truffle, it should be delicate, it should have a chocolaty flavour, which is very difficult to describe. The shape is not important. The shape of the truffle depends on the environment, if it grows in soil which is quite sandy, it will grow in normal shape.  If the soil is quite dense with lots of roots, lots of stones, it will have more of an odd shape.  But the shape doesn’t determine the taste of the truffle, nor the size. A truffle should be firm, have a bit of weight, be nice and dark inside and maturity is very important. So that’s why the best time to enjoy truffles is January, February and March.

Croque truffé

You are supplying the best chefs in the world, in France, in Asia… What is their criteria for truffles?

It really depends on what they do with it. For example at L’Ambroisie by Mathieu Pacaud, he wants 80 gr size truffles for his Feuilleté de truffe fraîche “bel humeur”. The reason is, he peels the skin. This is because the skin has bitterness, and he wants to remove that bitterness. He wants the truffle hard, because it’s easier to peel the skin.  In the restaurants of Joël Robuchon, for example, they make the truffle tart he designed; they use truffle slices, so they want a perfect mature truffle which can be sliced and is a good size. So for them we make a very special selection of truffle pieces, where he can have as many slices as possible with one truffle with the least wastage. Usually, the demand is for the shape, because we make sure that the taste is good.

Some of the luxury products, like caviar, have become mainstream, do you think that truffles will always remain as luxury product or do you think it will change?

I think we will never master truffle harvest, we will not know how to control it exactly, so we have this mystery around it, which will keep this product quite special. Caviar today is also still special, even if it’s mostly farmed… I think products remain special as long as people: chefs and customers treat it as a special product. I mean it’s a seasonal product, when it’s good, it brings an amazing flavour. Also there are a lot of truffles coming to the market, different varieties, but it’s all about educating people about the differences between each truffle. You have to say Latin names, each variety is different. To keep it special we should educate customers. But I think it will never become an everyday product, because again, you can’t control the harvest. There are more and more plantations of course, which go to market, but we still need to think that today we produce a maximum of 100 tons, a few years ago it was over 1000 tons and it was still a special product.

Also, while restaurants are closed, people are starting to learn to cook again, that’s very interesting. Because people are discovering this new passion for cooking they are looking for better ingredients. People are interested in truffles, they want to learn about them, so we are trying to educate them.  Most people are not familiar with the different types of truffles in France, so it’s important to teach them what to look for when they buy products.

A farmer holding his collected truffles

You buy 15 tons of truffles per year?  

We buy from 12 to 15 tons depending on the year. The lowest is 8 tons, we did a couple of years ago, average is 12 tons, the highest is 16-17 tons of black truffle. In France the produce is around 35 tons.

So it’s the second biggest producer, first is Spain, then France, Italy,…

Italy is a small producer. For me, a good truffle is a good truffle. This doesn’t mean that good truffles grow only in France… Australians, they do it very differently than we do. They have parcels that produce a lot more than France. In France, a good parcel is 45kg per hectare, in Australia, the land produces 150kg per hectare. It’s a lot more… Why? Maybe because it’s new, new to the land. They work very differently than us. They start harvesting in June, and we only start harvesting in January, we wait for the best maturity, they pick it early and leave at least 30% of production in the soil, it’s a totally different thing. Here the farmers do that, over there are people who plant the trees, others who clean them, others who harvest… Here we started planting seven years ago and we never depend on the plantation, we depend on the farmers because it’s too risky to depend on the plantation, so we depend on the farmers. Australia is different, they control everything from start to finish and they go to check the truffles and they pick when they’re ready to be sold and they are very careful about the selection. And also they have young trees that give bigger truffles, but the quality is still exactly the same. If it’s a good truffle, it is a good truffle, no difference. After you ask chefs, some say that they are very familiar, but when you start cooking them they are less fragrant, but I think it’s difficult to judge, because it depends on the harvest, it depends on the chef also. They all have a different feeling about what they like and what they don’t like, they have different styles of cooking and different ideas of the dish. It’s very subjective, some chefs love certain truffles, some will say “I don’t like the smell”.

What is your favourite dish to enjoy truffles?

I always say simple is the best: eggs are the perfect way to discover truffles. Scrambled is good, but I prefer just cooked, put truffle butter on the egg yolk, it’s fabulous. I very much like Coco de Paimpol beans. Not so far from here, they produce a white bean that goes very well with truffles. I can name more, but for me the simpler the better.

Truffle hunting with Christopher and Guillaume

Truffle hunting with Christopher and Guillaume

Truffle hunting