Aroma Coma

Sottocenere al Tartufo

Last week at the grocery store, I watched a woman casually drop $200 on white truffles. When the clerk weighed them and announced the price, the customer didn’t flinch but I did. I got to enjoy the aroma briefly while the precious nuggets were on the scale, and that’s probably as close as I’ll get to white truffles this year.
By comparison, truffled cheese is a bargain, yet it still dresses up a New Year’s Eve table. Most fine cheese counters have a good selection of these aromatic wheels this week, from Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor to truffled triple-creams and truffled pecorino. I’ve sampled many of them over the years.
To my taste, the black truffle’s earthy scent is most compatible with buttery cow’s milk cheeses, which is why I gravitate to Sottocenere al Tartufo® (soh-toh-CHEN-er-eh). Made at a creamery in Italy’s Veneto region from pasteurized milk, the 12-pound wheels are seasoned with sliced black truffle and matured for about three months sotto cenere—under ash—an ancient method of preserving cheeses. The ash leaves a fine, crusty gray coat on the outside that is largely cosmetic; I trim it away.

Adding Truffles

The interior is the color of pale butter, with a few black flecks that look like ground pepper. The texture is smooth and semisoft, the aroma pronounced and unmistakable but not overdone. I visited the creamery about five years ago and watched the cheesemaker (pictured at right) add the truffles to the warm curds in the vat—you can imagine what a heady moment that was—so I’m persuaded that Sottocenere comes by its aroma honestly.

Grilled Cheese

I wouldn’t put Sottocenere on a cheese tray—it’s domineering and doesn’t play well with others—but I can think of a dozen uses for it in the kitchen. I have put slices of Sottocenere on hot soft polenta, a big success. You can melt it over burgers or make cheese toasts to accompany a salad. And it makes an awesome grilled-cheese sandwich. For an hors d’oeuvre to pair with sparkling wine, cut the crusty sandwiches into bite-sized squares and serve them hot from the griddle. You won’t be able to make them fast enough.
I use a nonstick griddle or skillet instead of a panini press, which smushes the sandwiches too much. Brush the exposed sides of the bread with melted butter, and be generous with the cheese. A pound of Sottocenere al Tartufo®—about $28—will provide a truffled experience for eight people. And just think of all the money you saved.
Look for Sottocenere at these retailers:

San Francisco
Bom Dia Market; Cowgirl Creamery
North Bay
Cowgirl Creamery (Pt. Reyes); Big John’s, Dry Creek General Store and The Shed (Healdsburg); Freestone Artisan Cheese (Freestone); Woodlands Market (Kentfield)
Southern California
Larchmont Village Wine (L.A.); Paradise Pantry (Ventura)
Crush Wine Bistro and Fromagio’s (Anchorage); Cuban Liquor (Baton Rouge and Shreveport); Euro Mart Midtown (Tulsa); La Grande Orange Grocery (Phoenix); Scardello’s (Dallas)