December 7, 2014

A Thousand and One Eggs

It is really simplicity itself: heat, pan, butter, egg=omelet=deliciousness. 

When the French do it, of course, there are many many rules about how much heat, the type of pan, the quantity of butter (more is probably better), the number and temperature of the eggs. Add to that formula the technique, which has spawned books and articles and videos and true terror for the home cook, and one begins to recognize that the omelet is, in fact, a simple wolf in sheep's clothing.

Before we get too deep into the different types of omelets, let's celebrate an ingredient that ranks right up there with cheese and ham for inclusion: the mushroom. White ones, brown ones, old ones, new ones, mushrooms always find a spot in a puddle of well-mixed raw eggs destined for the ol' cast iron skillet. And then there are fancy ones, with fancy names in English and French: chanterelles (girolles in French), morels (morilles), black trumpet (trompette de la mort, or black trumpet of death..."I'll have a huge serving of black trumpet of death please! Tell my friends and family I died happy!"). Lastly, there are the king of tubers, the queen of fungi, the TRUFFLE...and, no, not the chocolate one. 

Assembled guests
These are celebrated in three places that I know: the white truffle of Alba, in Italy, for which I once paid $200 for one truffle only to serve it to a guest who said, and I quote, "I hate mushrooms. They make me sick."; the black truffle of Périgord, in southwest France (by far the most famous; it is called the "black diamond" and has been the subject of an abnormal amount of research and fascination, including a detailed analysis of its aphrodisiac qualities [digression: if it is rumored to be an aphrodisiac, why not serve it to your date saying as much? Even the thought that your food might make you horny seems a worthwhile pursuit]); and the Burgundy truffle, which I had never encountered before moving here.

Oh, some might say it is "inferior to" or "the lesser of" the two French truffles, but, even if that is so, if the black truffle ranks close to sex, perhaps the Burgundy one is akin to heavy petting. 

So on an October Saturday, it was time to check out the fête de la truffe in the town of Is-Sur-Tille, about 20 minutes north of Dijon. The town was obviously ready for a party under sunny skies and temperatures that seemed more August-ish than October. After a brief foray into the market, where one could ogle the truffles for sale, taste some on pasta proffered on a plastic fork, check out live rabbits, geese, and chickens in cages, it was time to migrate to the town social hall for the omelette géante, or giant omelet. I had fielded questions about what to expect from visitors, but I had to confess my own ignorance and attempt to assuage curiosity by saying we would all discover the event together.

Outside the hall, there was a small fire pit over which was placed an iron ring. The wood was burning white hot, and soon the assembled volunteers placed an enormous cast iron pan on the ring. As the pan heated, the guys threw slabs of butter into it, pushing the yellow globs around with three-foot long wooden spatulas. When it was time, they started to dump slurry eggs from white plastic buckets into the pan. 


...bucket of eggs
At first, the chef was concerned that his team wasn't dumping fast enough; the eggs were cooking too quickly. But, as the brigade found its rhythm, everyone calmed down and soon there were enough eggs to fills a kiddie pool being stirred and shoved and shoveled around the inside of the pan. 

In all, there were 1000 eggs put into the giant omelet, all of them mixed with chopped pieces of the local truffle. Five or six people continually stirred the eggs with the spatulas, moving the curds towards the middle and scraping the bottom of the pan continuously to prevent burning or stagnation. Within a minute or two, a man called out, "The spatulas are available to borrow; feel free to take a turn." 

A Natural!
He assessed the crowd after delivering this news and said, "Suddenly, you are a lot more quiet!" But people got the message, and soon the general public was relieving the initial team, notably two heroic Americans. It was far from scientific, and the guests had a great time making their own meal.

As the eggs coagulated, an organizer stadium-whispered that the appetizers were being served inside. The omelet maestro invited people to go to their tables and enjoy the first coure of jambon persillé, the famous parsleyed ham of the region. Dutifully, off we went, to find ourselves at the tail end of one table among perhaps twelve that stretched across the entire gym-like room. There were easily 40 people on each side of each row of the tables, with no break, so if you were in the middle, you had to walk past 20 folks to get to the outside of the row. The ham showed up family-style, and patrons served themselves and their friends and family from the platter. It was delicious. Women in the Confrerie outfit made the rounds with giant baskets of cut up baguette. As we wound down this opening gastronomic salvo, volunteers could be seen coming in from the door outside of which eggs were being cooked. They held a plastic white plate in each hand, weighted down by an impressive quantity of eggs (really more of a scramble than an omelet). They walked down the rows, starting with the people farthest from the door. In a flash, entire rows were served. When it was our turn, we saw in front of us a rich egg dish smothered in a creamy truffle sauce. 

The Pride of New Canaan Chips In

Even the kids loved it. It was an explosion of deep, mushroomy tastes, earthy, pungent, and remarkably long on the finish (to use a wine term). The assembled guests seemed universally content, and the eggs had people in a betting mood, hazarding guesses (five euros a pop) on the weight of one monster truffle being shown about the room. (I think it was around 250g, or about 8 ounces.)

After a fresh cheese whipped with truffle, and while we waited for coffee, I found a woman I knew from the confrérie. We discussed how smoothly the event had gone, and complimented the food. She said, "Frankly, for anyone who couldn't detect the taste of truffle in that dish, I suggest they have no tastebuds." She was clearly proud and pleased with the star product of the day, and I told her six Americans were leaving with fond memories, satisfied appetites, a new appreciation for this culinary treat, and, for two of them, sore shoulders from cooking one giant omelet. 

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