“A truffle can play tricks on your eyes: you see it on the menu, then it turns invisible on your plate, only to reappear on the bill,” deadpans chef Bruno, a chef owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant in France.
This pretty much sums up the love-hate relationship many customers have with what many consider to be the ultimate luxury food. Famously nicknamed the “Diamond of the Kitchen” by the 19th century French gourmet Jean-Antehlme Brillat-Savarin, truffle is an edible fungus.
Executive Chef Frederic Thevenet of Jardin Des Sens Saigon. He worked as the Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant Bruno — a Michelin-starred restaurant that consumes nine tonnes of truffles annually. | Source: Jardin Des Sens Saigon.
Its pungent smell and earthy, aromatic flavor have earned the precious delicacy scores of diehard fans who don’t mind the splurge. On the other side of the divide are those who argue that truffle is not worth the hype and the price tag.
A prized agricultural commodity, truffles are indeed expensive and as such, require utmost care in preparation as well as specialist truffle-handling skills.
As someone who learnt the art of making fungi-based dishes in a specialist Michelin-starred restaurant, chef Frederic is a wellspring of truffle knowledge. | Source: Jardin Des Sens Saigon.
To learn exactly what those entail, we turn to one of Saigon’s leading truffle experts – Executive Chef Frederic Thevenet of Jardin Des Sens Saigon, a fine dining restaurant in District 3 that Vietecetera first visited two years ago.
As someone who learnt the art of making fungi-based dishes in a specialist Michelin-starred restaurant, chef Frederic is a wellspring of truffle knowledge.
As it happens, Jardin Des Sens Saigon has just launched the new Black Truffle Madness menu, giving us the perfect excuse to nose about in chef Frederic’s kitchen while he tells us about the weird and wonderful world of truffles.
Truffles can cost upwards of $100 per ounce. Yet, 100 millions tons of the produce are consumed annually. What makes truffles expensive and so sought-after?
It’s because of the ingredient’s inherent rarity. Despite being abundant hundreds of years ago, truffles were out of reach for the majority of the population as at that time truffle harvesting and husbandry techniques were still underdeveloped. So truffles were a delicacy reserved for the upper echelons of society. Ultimately, it was the rarity and the exclusiveness that lent the truffle its initial appeal.
“From the six genuses of truffles commonly used in dining, we chose the black truffle.” | Source: Jardin Des Sens Saigon.
In recent years, truffles have become more scarce, for various reasons including climate change. Yet counterintuitively, the fungus has also become more accessible. The price is being driven down by an increased demand from the mass consumer who has developed a taste for this special ingredient. And I’m truly excited about sharing truffles with a wider audience.
There are 100 variants of truffles around the world. What are the main types you use in cooking and what are their differences?
There are six genuses of truffles that are commonly seen in dining, each coming from a different region in the world and indeed boasting distinctive tastes, which makes them uniquely exquisite:
- Tuber magnatum, commonly known as the Alba white truffle, is by far the most expensive and sought-after genus of truffles. Harvested in either the Langhe region of Italy, the Motovun region of Austria or Istria, this truffle is distinctively strong in fragrance and earthy in taste.
- Tuber melanosporum Vittadini, also known as the black truffle, is an explosion of flavors: crisp and mellow in texture, it fills the mouth with a subtle combination of flavors ranging from mushroom and radishes to spices.
- Grey in color, Vittadini tuber brumale is a popular choice for the pâtissiers due to its faint honeyed taste.
- Tuber uncinatum, otherwise known as the Burgundy truffle, is inky in color, nutty in taste, and ‘mushroomy’ on the nose.
- Brown and sometimes chocolate in shade, Tuber mesentericum passes off a garlicky and gassy smell that fortunately fades away. A relic of aristocracy, the genus is no longer the most popular truffle.
- Tuber aestivum, more widely known as the summer truffle, is beige in flesh but brown to blackish on the outside. The genus’s mild flavor and aroma lend it the flexibility to complement and elevate many dishes.
What type of truffle do you mainly use in your ‘Black Truffle Madness’ menu?
From the six genuses of truffles commonly used in dining, we chose the black truffle, which is the reason we named our menu ‘Black Truffle Madness’.
“I purposefully only serve fresh truffles by our gastronomic menu, allowing diners to appreciate the produce’s aroma and peculiarities more vividly.” | Source: Jardin Des Sens Saigon.
In terms of taste, the black truffle is splendid in its versatility. Rich, woodsy and at times sweet on the nose, this genus has a mild but sophisticated taste of garlic, mushroom and earthy hazelnut — its mild taste unfailingly shining like a star in every dish we serve.
How do you handle your truffles at Jardin Des Sens Saigon?
With care and a light touch.
Having worked as the Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant Bruno — a Michelin-starred restaurant that consumes nine tonnes of truffles annually — I know my way around the tricky ingredient.
At Jardin Des Sens Saigon, the goal is to bring truffles closer to the Vietnamese diners. | Source: Jardin Des Sens Saigon.
At Jardin Des Sens Saigon, the goal is to bring truffles closer to the Vietnamese diners. To that end, I purposefully only serve fresh truffles by our gastronomic menu, allowing diners to appreciate the produce’s aroma and peculiarities more vividly.
In democratizing the ingredient and essentially making it more accessible, Jardin Des Sens Saigon also offers customers the opportunity to purchase truffles by the gram. Enjoying truffles doesn’t have to burn a hole in your pocket as you can choose the amount of fresh truffles shaved on your dish.
What are the qualities you look for when selecting truffles for your Black Truffle Madness menu?
Freshness. Beauty. Origin.
Given these qualities, where do you source your truffles?
These qualities can only be met if you choose your suppliers wisely and trust them. In fact, there is nothing worse than finding yourself unpleasantly surprised by the quality of the product when it finally arrives. To avoid any such disappointment, at Jardin Des Sens Saigon we source all our black truffles from a reliable supplier in Australia.
Jardin Des Sens Saigon also offers customers the opportunity to purchase truffles by the gram. | Source: Jardin Des Sens Saigon.
The cool climate and rich soil in the land Down Under makes Australia the premier supplier of truffles — rivaled only by the European countries. The truffle season in Australia has just recently begun (and will last till September). So it’s as much a convenience for us logistics-wise as it is a golden opportunity to introduce Australian truffles to the wider Vietnamese public.
“At Jardin Des Sens Saigon, our combined culinary expertise serves a shared purpose: to tell a story of a journey that is complex yet accessible to all.” | Source: Jardin Des Sens Saigon.
Do you see truffles moving beyond Euro-centric fine dining into non-traditional settings, such as local Asian cuisines and everyday home-cooking?
“As for whether truffles can be incorporated into and have a future in Asian cuisines, I am very hopeful.” | Source: Jardin Des Sens Saigon.
That is exactly what I hope to see in the future. You shouldn’t need to go to a temple of gastronomy to appreciate truffles. You should be able to experience the exquisite taste of truffles in the comfort of your own home.
As for whether truffles can be incorporated into and have a future in Asian cuisines, I am very hopeful. In capable hands, the truffle can elevate the already rich and complex Asian cuisines with its explosive concoction of flavors.