"If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without truffles" — Colette
All right, it was decadent, self-indulgent, over the top and a bit expensive, but it was one of the greatest culinary weekends of my life — the Annual Truffle Festival in California's Napa Valley, organized by the American Truffle Co.
Six Michelin-starred chefs with a nose for truffles had been gathered from around the world, invited by Ken Frank of La Toque at the Westin Verasa Hotel to cater a monumental feast. Chef Frank is a champion of the truffle and is one of the chefs most responsible for the rise of California/French-influenced menus in the 1970s, when he was the first chef at Michael's Restaurant in Santa Monica, the birthplace of California Cuisine.
Among the chefs summoned to Napa were Gabriel Kreuther of The Modern in New York; Sylvain Portay of Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo; Josiah Citrin from Melisse in Santa Monica; David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California; and Nancy Oakes of Boulevard in San Francisco — sharing among them 13 Michelin stars.
The Victorian town of Napa, built along its tidal river, is the gateway and largest community in the valley with a population of 73,000. It lies on Route 29, 46 miles north of San Francisco. Many exciting young chefs have added their presence to the town's numerous tasting rooms, along with Food TV Network icons Tyler Florence and Iron Chef Morimoto.
The town should be explored by foot, with lovely artisan shops and restaurants fronting the Napa River and scattered throughout town. Every corner has markers directing visitors to restaurants and tasting-room sites.
Not to be missed is the Oxbow Public Market on First and McKinstry streets. Similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, under one roof are artisan bakeries, butchers, cafes and restaurants, the Hog Island Oyster Co., wine shops, produce, tea and spice emporiums, homemade ice cream and candies, olives and — my favorite — the Cheese Merchant, where fromagier Lassa Skinner offers tastes of her local and imported wares.
More than 250 wineries can be found in the 30-mile-long, five-mile-wide V-shaped valley, whose complexity of soils and microclimates allows the production of 37 different grape varieties and world-class winemaking. Over the weekend I got to taste some exceptional wines both unaccompanied and matched with courses. Some of the more memorable were the Pinot Gris from Robert Sinskey of the Carneros region, where I later explored the truffle orchard that is planted next to his vines.
Two of the best Pinot Noirs were served by Truchard and Miner vineyards: beautiful fruit, inviting noses and different but both exceptional approaches to the wine. Liparita's Cabernet Sauvignon was a cigar-lover's dream.
I arrived on Friday afternoon for a champagne reception at the hotel with some passed truffle-enhanced hors d'oeuvres, exceptional wines and a chance to meet truffle enthusiasts from around the world. That evening two local restaurants hosted truffle-themed meals for the attendees: The Farm at Carneros Inn and the in-town hot spot Oenotri. Among the group were some serious trufflites. Many had started their own orchards and were here to attend seminars on the latest farming techniques, methods and scientific research.