They look like burnt marshmallows, smell like cooking gas and you’ll need a well-trained dog (or pig) to find them. Of course, truffles also taste as complex and nuanced as the finest wines, occupy a prime spot in the pantries of some of the finest gourmet chefs in the world, and now they’re coming to Colombia.
It all started two years ago with a thesis project co-authored by Grégoire Besème and Jairo Mendoza, then students at the Los Andes University in Bogotá, who decided that Colombia was ready to go gourmet.
“Gourmet foods and first choice products are hard to find here. Most of the products that make it into the country are lower quality,” said Mendoza. “We thought, ‘we can change that.’”
After months researching the market potential for truffles in Colombia and interviewing providers in France, the fungal delicacy, which can cost thousands of dollars per kilogram, was first imported to Colombia last April through a partnership between Besème and Mendoza’s Joyería Gastronómica (Gastronomic Jewelry) and Christopher Poron’s Plantin, a French producer and exporter of truffles.
The achievement makes Colombia only the second Latin American country- Brazil was the first- to import truffles, a not insignificant distinction for the nation’s burgeoning food scene.
And if the swoons of food writers and journalists at a recent three-course tasting are any indication, the project should be successful. Chef Ivan Cadena of La Guardia Catering served mouth-watering beef ribs braised in wild mushroom sauce and truffle paste, pancetta-wrapped pork cheek with truffle-infused acacia honey, and risotto with forest mushrooms, a morel infusion sauce and summer truffles. Each plate was overwhelmingly well received.
Of course the rest of Colombia, a nation perhaps not known for gastronomic adventurousness, may need some time to get used to such a foreign ingredient. Poron remains optimistic, however.
“It seems like a growing market,” he noted. “People are afraid of changing the history of their cooking too quickly, but we’ve seen what’s going on in Brazil, which is a fast-growing market, and we said ‘why not?’”
Mendoza also pointed out that travel and increased foreign trade have expanded the tastes of many Colombians and consequently the nation’s culinary options, particularly in cosmopolitan cities like Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena.
But then there’s the price. Truffles are expensive by almost any standards, leaving many dishes prepared with the exotic ingredient well beyond the reach of the average consumer. Realizing this, Besème hopes that Joyería Gastronómica will help to “democratize” the truffle with a variety of truffle-infused products from salt to olive oil that offer an outstanding flavor experience for a fraction of the price.
Unquestionably, the arrival of a key ingredient in European haute cuisine in Colombia marks an important step forward for the nation’s food culture and a brand new way for residents to expand their culinary boundaries. “Food is a door to another culture,” pointed out Mendoza. “It allows travel through taste.”