Luxury living: A guide to gourmet food gifts
Let this article be your guide to selecting truffles, caviar and champagne gourmet food gifts.
What comes to mind when you think of gourmet food gifts? Truffles? Caviar? Champagne? How confident are you regarding the selection of these and other luxury items? Let this article be your guide and your recipients will be pleased with your good taste and thoughtfulness in gourmet food selection.
Here we are talking about the mushrooms and not the chocolate truffles. And we are not just talking about any mushroom. Truffles have a distinctive taste and they smell kind of musky, garlicky, earthy and grassy. Their odor is as important as their taste.
There are several varieties of truffles, but the most valuable are the white Tuber magnatum Pico (veined, pale yellow outside with a warm-white inside) and the black Tuber melanosporum Vitt (blackish gray, waxy and earthy in flavor). Both types are brittle and slightly warty in texture. Truffles are strictly harvested in woodland settings by licensed truffle hunters with truffle-sniffing dogs or pigs. Some companies sell primarily Italian truffles and categorize the sizes as super extra, extra, first choice, second choice, pieces and crumbs. Truffles can also be found in France and China. Domestic varieties are grown in Oregon.
Truffle scarcity is what makes them expensive. Truffles have two seasons and the winter truffles are more expensive. Black truffles can cost from $300 to $600 a pound and white truffles from $1,000 to $2,000 a pound. An ounce would yield a one-inch truffle.
Choose firm truffles that still have a strong, earthy aroma. You can order truffles from a quality mail order gourmet food service. They should arrive wrapped in an absorbent, coarse paper that you should change frequently. Ideally, truffles are kept at the same temperature of their natural underground habitat while being shipped. You can keep your fresh truffles for a few days in the refrigerator or in a cool, dry place. You’ll want to serve your truffles with a neutral food, such as pasta or eggs, so that it doesn’t compete with the truffle’s unique taste and smell. You could also consider purchasing truffle oil. It should smell purely like quality truffles and would be included in recipes where the food is delicate, such as risotto or potatoes.
Caviar’s expense comes from the way it is obtained. The fish eggs are taken from the ovaries of a still-living sturgeon who probably weighs about 60 pounds. Then the thin membranes of the eggs are screened through a sieve in a way that musn’t damage the eggs. Caviar that doesn’t make it through the screen intact is sold as pressed caviar and provides strong flavor in recipes. Sturgeon roe can be labeled “caviar”, but all other types must list the fish first in the name, such as “lumpfish caviar”. These other types cost less, because they are less rare, can be more salted and may be dyed black.
Good caviar should have eggs that are not broken, and are shiny and firm. Be suspect of caviar that is labeled fresh, because it must be aged in brine for about a month for both flavor and preservation. Fresh generally means that the caviar has not been pasteurized. While some fish roe can be good enough to be processed using a smaller amount of salt, it then becomes more perishable. Good caviar should not taste overly salty or fishy.
Caviar from the Beluga variety of sturgeon has a creamy taste. The prominent dark spot is the egg itself. The egg sac is the gel that surrounds it. Its eggs are pea-sized, glossy, soft and clear. Caviar from the Osetra variety of sturgeon has a nutty taste from its gray-brown eggs. Smaller eggs come from the Sevruga variety of sturgeon, and since you get more eggs per mouthful, this caviar seems saltier.
Unfortunately, Caspian sturgeon populations have diminished due to overfishing. You may need to select other varieties until the population increases. Whitefish caviar is similar to sturgeon, although it comes from the Mississippi paddlefish. Its eggs are small and golden with a less complex flavor. If the label says, “American sturgeon caviar” then you are getting the paddlefish, not the Russian sturgeon. Salmon or red caviar is probably the best substitute for the more expensive varieties of sturgeon. Its eggs can be orange or red. Poor man’s caviar contains no roe at all. Instead, it is made from eggplant that has been given a similar, salty flavor.
Caviar can last about four weeks in near freezing temperatures due to its high oil content. Transport it from the store in ice, but resist freezing it at home, because the eggs could burst. 34 degrees would be safe.
Serve your fine caviar cold by placing it in a non-metallic bowl that rests inside a bigger bowl of ice. Choose non-metallic serving spoons. You can keep it simple with plastic or you can get fancy and use mother-of-pearl. Serve the caviar with bland foods such as crackers or toast points. It is considered poor manners to eat more than two spoonfuls of caviar when it is served as an hors d’oeurve. Purists prefer to serve caviar with frozen vodka, but Champagne is a favorite, as well.
Champagne is produced with strict regulations and comes from a restricted 70,000 acres in France. Only certain types of grapes (Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) may be used and a limited number of pressings are allowed. The second fermentation must occur in the bottles themselves, rather than in bulk tanks. Each bottle has to indicate the status of the producer as well as the brand owner:
NM – Negociant Manipulant is a firm which buys the champagne ingredients and completes production on the premises.
RM – Recoltant Manipulant is a firm that grows its own grapes and produces the champagne on the premises.
RC – Recoltant Manipulant is a grower who supplies his grapes to a cooperative and takes the wine back during any stage of the production. Then the grower sells it.
CM – Co-operative de Manipulation is a cooperative that creates and sells wine from grapes supplied by the co-op members.
SR – Societe de Recoltants is a family business that uses grapes harvested exclusively by members of the family to produce wine.
ND – Negociant Distributeur is a merchant who labels wines on his premises that he bought already produced.
MA – Marque d’Acheteur – BOB – Buyer’s own brand is wine that is created and labeled in Champagne. The producer’s name is on the bottle, but the brand name belongs to a restaurant or supermarket, etc.
Two of the primo Champagnes are Moet’s Dom Perignon and Roederer’s Cristal. These deluxe or vintage Champagnes are only produced during the years that the grapes are of excellent quality. Vintage wines are generally made from the Chardonnay grapes. Non-vintage wines may be aged one to three years, while deluxe wines may have four to eight years of aging, which adds to both the quality and the cost. The bottom line is that if you can taste the difference between non-vintage and vintage wines, than the increase in cost is worthwhile.
Store your Champagne between 40 and 60 degrees, either upright or horizontally. It is sensitive to light and that is why it is contained in dark, green glass. Before serving, chill your Champagne to 40 degrees by chilling it classically in a bucket of half ice and half water for at least 20 minutes. When opening your Champagne, avoid the popping cork sound, by keeping one hand over the cork when untwisting the cage. Your goal is the Champagne sigh.
If you have served your guests the finest truffles, caviar and Champagne that money can buy, then you will surely hear more than the sighing of the Champagne bottle. Select wisely, present with good taste and your gourmet food gifts will make a grand impression