My mom is in town visiting and we've been quite busy. With Halloween coming this weekend, I confess I haven't got much time to write anything thoughtful; however, I wanted to share this lovely tidbit with you in the interim. I didn't even ask permission, but this is a short essay my dad recently wrote and submitted to Saveur Magazine. I think it's a great piece, and perhaps it will be a welcome change from my boring stuff! Would love to know what you think.
ONE TRUFFLE AT THE RITZ
True food lovers are always ready for that singular new experience, whether it is the rare and exotic, the voluptuous and excessive, or simply the soul satisfying richness of the best of the tried and true; that moment,that first bite can be almost paralyzing in its intensity and, if the planets are properly aligned, can be relived and savored for a lifetime. I count myself among those fortunate (and perhaps relentlessly inquisitive enough) to have had several such food moments. One of my favorites was the experience of a unique dish at the Ritz in Paris in February, 1980.
I was a 31 year old lawyer in Paris for only the second time and on a side excursion after a London meeting of the American Bar Association. My wife, Julie, I and another couple, had decided to stay at the Ritz, certainly an extravagance, but one quickly and eagerly justified as a once in a lifetime experience. After all, what better time to go than with good friends; besides, Julie was seven months pregnant with our second child, so a little indulgence could be justified.
We arrived a little before check-in time and our rooms were not yet ready. Even without a room, we felt welcomed and cosseted by the hushed quietness of the public areas richly carpeted in plush oriental rugs on gleaming stone floors and furnished with rare and carefully polished antiques. It was winter and the hotel was sparsely populated, its silence punctuated only with the staff's murmurings and the quiet rustling of the maids' black taffeta skirts as they went almost invisibly about their duties. We had certainly "arrived," but were doing our best not to look as overwhelmed and intimidated as we felt. We tried to behave as if all this was second nature to us so as not to betray the "country come to town"reality of this group of four young people from Houma, Louisiana.
That night we decided to dine in the hotel as tired travelers (and pregnant women in particular) sometimes do. The large formal dining room was empty when we arrived. While we missed the energy and excitement of a crowd, there was still something almost reverential about the room. The linens, crystal, sliver, silk drapery, flowers and candlelight watched over by several tuxedoed staff members created something resembling an empty stageset. We had to choose whether to be lonely guests in an empty hotel restaurant, or instead the stars of our very own opulent production. We quickly chose stardom and a bottle of champagne as the useful accelerant.The occasion was extraordinary and demanded no less.
We studied our menus at length with the much needed assistance of Julie's still quite good high school French. This necessarily took quite some time and, after all, we were not in a hurry. It was then that I began eyeing a beautifully presented whole smoked salmon lying in state on a gilded baroque sideboard across the room. As soon as had I began to whisper of this delicacy to my companions, a waiter glided up with a substantial portion for us to sample. I had not yet read or heard about Cesar Ritz's famed table radar, but had just experienced it firsthand. The service continued with our needs being met almost before we recognized them ourselves, and all this was done from a respectful distance without intrusion.
Eventually we made our selections. With Julie's help and some charade-like communication with the waiter, I discovered a hot appetizer described as a whole truffle baked and sauced in a puff pastry. My experience of truffles at this point was confined to tiny specs in pates.The specter of a whole truffle was mesmerizing. I loved their smoky, earthy flavor. The idea of a whole one all to myself prepared and served in this temple of opulence and excess was too much to bear. Unfortunately, so was the a la carte price of $50.00, a staggering sum indeed to a young lawyer in 1980. I agonized only briefly before resorting again to my tried and true justification of excess. When, would I ever have such an opportunity again? Wouldn't I forever regret any penurious cowardice?
Of course I would! And so the battle was won (or lost depending on one's perspective) and I placed my order.
The dish arrived plated on heated Limoges. I knew because I had already peeked at the bottom of my bread plate proving once again my lack of manners and proper upbringing. The golden square of pastry rose several inches from the plate and was topped with a circular dome hinting at the prize within. When I broke the very crisp and layered croissant- like crust with my knife and fork, a small cloud of pungent steam rose as I waited for the dish to cool. Despite my best efforts to savor it slowly, the deliciously sauced and spongy golf ball sized black truffle, along with every crumb of the pastry seemed gone in no time at all.
I do not remember the other courses, or what everyone else had during our long and very French dinner. I do, however, remember one very special glittering evening of splendor and luxury with my lovely wife and two dear friends, all of whom kindly indulged me in my quest for memorable excess. We had an exceptional evening and I have Proustian memories of it even now, and without ever again biting into another whole truffle.