Sniffing out a truffle hunt in the Cederberg
Chef Giorgio Nava, Black Périgord truffles and a long table in the Cederberg. The raison d’être? A coming together in the name of great food and wine for the penultimate truffle hunt of the season.
Hailing from Europe and armed with a degree in agriculture, Giorgio Nava is no stranger to truffle farming. Although he has lived here for close to two decades, this was his first visit to a South African truffière where the Black Périgord, the “Mozart of mushrooms”, thrives rather unexpectedly in a spartan environment that bears no resemblance to the dense woodlands and forests of Northern Italy and France where these rare varietals are typically sought. The orchard in this story is located on Groenfontein, a sprawling farm four hours from Cape Town owned by Volker Miros, widely acknowledged as the pioneer of trufficulture in South Africa and the founder of Woodford Truffles.
Our intriguing foraging expedition and exceptional food experience was arranged by one of Volker’s three children, the filmmaker-turned-truffle hunter Paul Miros.
Every hunt begins and ends with the dog, the true champions, gently trained to identify and track the heady scent of a truffle to its source. Back in the day this task fell to pigs but all too often the decadent commodity either ended up as a hog breakfast or minus a fair chunk, which would drastically reduce its market value. Dogs aren’t as greedy and are easier to control and while several species can be used to snuffle for truffle, it’s the Lagotto Romagnolo that is the standout breed – an adorable, super intelligent and enthusiastic retriever who lives for the hunt. Paul introduced us to his three-year-old Lagotto called Baccio, and watching the two work the field was a lesson in harmonious teamwork.
To facilitate control and focus, Baccio remained on the leash and moved quickly, head down and darting from trunk to trunk, with Paul close behind, all the while spurring him on with encouragement and praise. It wasn’t long before the excited canine caught the scent on the breeze, led us to a rather unassuming tree and began to dig furiously, jets of sand flying back through his hind legs and his sand-sprinkled head rapidly starting to disappear into a hole. Swiftly restraining the dog, Paul dropped on all fours, scooped up the damp earth and inhaled. It smelt like truffle! The dog by his side, he continued to excavate, carefully, and about 10 minutes later successfully prised the coveted nugget from its subterranean support system and deposited it into the chef’s waiting hands.
The Périgord must be used within 18 to 20 days before it loses all intensity.
Originally from Milan, Giorgio Nava relocated to Cape Town in 1999. A distinguished chef who has cooked alongside the likes of Massimo Bottura, he swiftly made a mark with discerning foodies, overseeing six restaurants: Carne on Kloof, Carne on Keerom, 95 Keerom, 95 on Parks, 95 at Morgenster and Kwéyòl, as well as The Pasta Factory that he acquired in December 2019 and co-owns with compatriot Ilaria Cannetta.
That was before Covid-19 and at Level 2, where we now find ourselves, 95 at Parks started doing Sunday lunches from last weekend and only Carne on Kloof Street is trading as per “usual”, much to the delight of gastronomes who relish the meaty menu and modern Italian cuisine. The future of his other eateries hangs in the balance and, like all in the trade, he has reeled from lockdown and the crippling restrictions that have hammered the industry.
“It’s been hard, of course – for us, our staff, for everyone. We’ve been treated like children, like we are being punished, like we are in kindergarten.” These are skittish times where the future is uncertain and anxiety prevails.
“We were struggling during isolation but managed to survive with takeaways, Mr Delivery, extra little jobs here and there and private dinners. Now we hope to be able to carry on without further interruptions, with no more stopping. At least the curfew will be extended from this Sunday so we can live and work normally, give jobs back while still taking the necessary precautions of course.”
Says Tamsin Snyman, Africa Chair for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, “Giorgio is an industry stalwart who’s been around the block more than most and he continues to reinvent himself at every turn.” It’s his ability to adapt and innovate and stay positive that is likely to see him prevail with more of his eateries intact. “We are open on Kloof and 95 at Parks and excited to see our customers returning,” Giorgio says. It goes without saying that the more people eat out again, the better the industry will fare. Now more than ever, supporting local restaurants is crucial to their revival.
But back to the festa del tartufo at the Miros homestead on Groenfontein. Chef prepared an extraordinary meal, three courses paired with a selection of superb wines from his personal collection. “I love mature wine aged in the right way,” he said. Although not a big drinker, he confided that wine is his passion and he likes nothing more than to collect it and enjoy it with the right people on special occasions.
“Pairing the right wine with the truffle is not very easy though,” he explained. “You have to use very delicate and gentle wines with low tannins and low alcohol – nothing too rich or woody that will interfere with the truffle.”
For the starter he chose medium-bodied white wine – Vermentino – fresh and round on the palette with a floral aftertaste. There were two: a 2015 Vermentino Di Sardegna by Casa Fondata Nel in Italy, and a 2017 Vespri from Morgenster. Both perfectly complemented the raw artichoke salad made with fresh parsley, toasted pecan nuts and lemon, and crowned with truffle shavings prepped in butter and virgin olive oil that had been warmed on the lowest heat to preserve the bewitching aroma.
The second course, a risotto, was sublime, paired with a well-aged 1996 Pinotage by KWV’s Cathedral Cellar in Stellenbosch. “Where a young wine would be too powerful, old vintages are perfect because having lost most of the tannins they don’t disturb the delicate aromatic profile of the tartufo.” I watched as he toasted the Carnaroli rice (his preferred risotto rice), added vegetable stock, grated Grana Padano for extra creaminess, a glass of unwooded chardonnay and shallots fried in olive oil and butter. After a short simmer he stirred in the warmed truffle concoction, the same as he’d used in the salad. “You can’t just shave black truffle into risotto – the essence, it will disappear – it will be almost bland. Warming it in this way, we announce the flavour.” I loved that comment the most.
Third and finally was a cup of pillowy, savoury tiramisu, built with a layer of Italian polenta, a poached egg, the same truffle concoction as used for the starter dish, mash made from blue potatoes sourced in the Free State, grated Parmesan and more truffle. When discussing his choice of cheese in any truffle dish, Giorgio falls back on Grana Padano. “It’s sweeter than Parmigiano-Reggiano – I don’t want the cheese to overpower the truffle – we want an explosion of flavour.” A slither of raw truffle and a sprinkling of fresh artichoke for crunchiness made up the garnish.
It’s hard to define the smell of a truffle, an aroma that is earthy, nutty and addictive, a taste you’ll never forget. And its evolution is mysterious. At the Groenfontein farm the wizardry begins with the oak acorn, used predominantly in South Africa. When the seeds germinate they are transferred to special bags until stable enough for truffle spore inoculation. From there, the DNA tested inoculum is applied and the juvenile plants undergo a series of lab tests. Once the quality is approved, they graduate to the nursery and thereafter, at about 18 months of age, they are planted in the field.
Truffles grow on the roots of the host tree in a complex symbiotic relationship, interlacing around the roots to form a mycorrhiza that pushes out microscopically fine filaments into the surrounding soil under the tree. The fruiting body (the part we consume) develops at a depth of between 10 and 30 centimetres. The mycelium sources nourishment to share with its nutrient-deprived host and in return receives carbohydrates and other minerals essential for its own development. It’s an intense quid pro quo that’s extremely taxing on the tree and as a result it’s not uncommon to find an eight year old oak no higher than a man’s knee. But, as Paul and his father explained, “truffle farming is about growing roots, not trees”. Volker recalls how he used to search for mushrooms with his grandfather in the Black Forest near Stuttgart where he grew up. “I was only about five but I distinctly remember how the mushrooms enhanced the umami of the gravy in our Sunday lunch – it’s a flavour that has stayed with me all my life.”
His interest in truffles was initially piqued in Namibia where he encountered the Kalahari truffle or t-nabba that grows on the runners of red dune grasses. “This put me on to truffle cultivation, the European Black Périgord in particular. Other than a farmer with a small truffle patch in Dullstroom where the first black truffle was unearthed in 2015, no one else was growing them.” An indigenous wild truffle had also been unearthed on the chalk downs of the Southern Cape, a find that convinced Volker that the Black Périgord truffle – Tuber melanosporum – could be successfully grown in this country. Fortuitously, Groenfontein so happened to tick all the right truffle boxes too, having the space, the right type of soil and the requisite 800 cold units to appease the fussy fungus. Woodford Truffles came next, established to create a truffle-producing agricultural industry in South Africa. The company has supplied inoculated trees to truffle farms in the Western Cape, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, and strives to keep the farmers, all independent growers, abreast of international practices and the latest technologies.
Whether black or white, truffle cultivation is a risky and finicky business that relies on a co-operative climate among other elemental factors. With the first harvest taking seven years or more to realise, farming the Black Périgord is slow return on investment, heavy on budget and demands endless patience. Volker, bolstered by determination and passion, admits he simply followed the science. He travelled overseas frequently, visiting orchards and consulting with mycologists and experts around the globe such as Professor Alessandra Zambonelli from Bologna University. After trial and error and impressive fortitude, he arrived at the correct formulations and methodology needed to create a superior product and the productive plantations, and in 2015, nine years after the first juvenile trees went into the ground, the farm produced its first Périgords. Today in a local restaurant they can fetch up to R40 a gram, and if you’re in Europe, you might have to rethink your craving because one kilogram will set you back at least 750€ (R15,000). Unforgettable prices for an unforgettable taste.
Kicking back after dinner, a glass of 2004 Mount Rozier in hand, Giorgio was feeling satisfied. “When you ask me about working with truffles, my answer is ‘i tartufi, che meraviglia’ – the truffle, how marvellous! For any chef it’s a dream to work with this ingredient, every time. To be here in the Cederberg, to have a chance to forage, cook with the truffle and share good food with friends is such a joy for me. It’s something beautiful, fantastico!” True that. Grazie mille, Chef. DM/TGIFood