Vino Veritas: Traveling for Wine and Truffles

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The first page of the menu is riddled with truffles. It isn’t the season anymore—black truffles make their elaborate entrance in the winter in the Rhone Valley—but Chef stores them, finds ways to preserve them, holds onto the fresh ones for as long as possible and paints his simple regional dishes with the earthy, musky, unctuous richness of the elusive mushrooms. The seasonal vegetables are sautéed with a kiss of butter and tossed with truffles. The scallops are pierced and topped with truffles. The frisée salad is blanketed in shaved truffles. The chicken is stuffed with truffles. Even toast is stacked high with fat slices of truffles. We’ve caught the end of his supply, he tells us in the kitchen. He holds up a jar, maybe a gallon in capacity, filled with knobby black clusters ranging in size from a lime to my fist.

truffles

I can’t read the menu, but my guesses are close. We’re tucked away here, far from Paris and places where too many tourists venture. The Rhone Valley has its international pull—Châteuneuf-du-Pape, Avignon, etc—but there isn’t much reason to wander down these windy roads past gnarled ancient vineyards whose owners gave up long ago, past the clusters of wild thyme and lavender that line the roads, past old farmhouses and into a tiny town with tunnels made by sycamores. Not much reason, that is, save this restaurant, Beaugraviere, off the main road in Mondragon.

“I would like to eat here whenever possible,” my husband ceremoniously announced on our way. “Ok,” I laughed. “That’s fine.” Now I’m beginning to see why.

The room is not beautiful. The walls are unadorned, butter yellow, it in many ways resembles a church reception hall. There is one piece of art, though—a brightly colored canvas leaning on a high table with a portrait of a truffle, a plate with black lumps and a glass of wine behind it, because this is and has been the glory of this place forever. Chef Guy in the kitchen, sommelier and maître d’hôtel Daniel, his wife Tina out front, and a server Cedric run everything and the cellar is unpretentious and ripe with hidden old Burgundies, Rhone wines, and interesting bottles left untouched for years.

The 2006 Meursault we’re drinking—rich, complex, sweet corn and oats and lemon balm—is put corked and put away for tomorrow (we will be back tomorrow) and a Châteuneuf-du-Pape arrives, Vieille Julienne Vieille Vignes 2000, a cuvee not even made any more. “You’ll want the red for the truffles,” my husband practically sings. He’s like a little boy who just discovered his supper is Fruit by the Foot.

When the plates arrive I have to blink a few times to clarify that there are in fact other things besides truffles there at all. The frisée salad is utterly blanketed, the asparagus is balanced if not overrun by matchstick-shaped pieces of marbley black mushroom. We get scallops and chicken for our main courses, scallops perfumed from the inside out with truffles, chicken steamed with them under its skin, potatoes flecked and topped with truffles, sauces of steeped truffles, raw truffles shaved on top. The perfect apple pastry with honey ice cream at the end of the meal is untruffled.

If it seems like overkill, it was, but if you assume we were weary of the things, you are wrong.

The next day, back for Sunday lunch, we drink the rest of our Meursault and open another Châteuneuf-du-Pape (when in Rome, when in Rhone, right?), a birth year wine for me: 1986 Rayas. It’s much more than lovely, dark leathery fruit, musky perfume of spices and cedar, earth, and a musky quality that echoes the inevitable truffles on our plates. We’re more reasonable, more specific: salad, toasts, but maybe skip the truffles for my main course.

Mistake number one at Beaugraviere: skipping the truffles for the main course.

The perfect pigeon, nibbled intermittently between baby bounces, is delicious but I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed an opportunity. The tiny carnage on my plate is a clear sign I’ve enjoyed myself, but the truffles…

We eat dessert and drink espresso on the terrace in the sun which reminds you of your proximity to the Mediterranean and the breeze that hints at the Alps.

A change in travel plans brings us back here again two days later. This feels like the plan all along: the first visit is to deal with the shock of it all, the amazing array of wine and food and fungus. The second visit is to wander off the truffled path, explore, squander a bit, and the third visit is to return home again, head down and hands out begging forgiveness. How could I have ever thought something else would be better? I think as the salad, toasts, and chicken arrive.

We ask for something interesting to drink, a bottle of the sommelier’s choosing, and he returns with a 1981 Chateau la Nerte, a Châteuneuf-du-Pape from a year without acclaim, a sleeper as they’re often called. It’s remarkably interesting and uncurls like a smoldering corner of newspaper: constantly changing, constantly compelling. It feels light and rich at once, unimposing but complementary. I feel spoiled.

truffles and baby

“It’s peasant food, really,” my husband says. Bread, vegetables, some chicken, and a little mushroom somebody found in the woods. We alternate dancing with the baby and stealing perfect bites, the prodigals returned.

Katie Callahan in a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.



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