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From the truffles of Perigord to the roe of the Beluga sturgeon, certain foods have a cachet, a mystique that affords them luxury status. But how does a food acquire such an image? It must be scarce, of course, and consequently pricey, but it must also have an incomparable flavour: no cheap and cheerful substitute will do. Luxury foods are an extravagance to be enjoyed only rarely. Eat them too often and that delicious sense of celebration fades. Then, too, the unctuous flavour palls. Thanks to new means of production, new supply routes, today's luxuries may be commonplace tomorrow; or they may have been two-a-penny yesterday. In Dickens's day, oysters were the fare of the poor. In the 1920s, British soldiers sent to secure the Russian oilfields against the Bolsheviks complained bitterly about their daily diet of "fish jam". Caviar, that was, from the Caspian Sea. So if you can't afford lobster and vintage Champagne every night, be thankful: for you these remain luxurious.

lobster

AMONG shellfish, the lobster is king of the ocean, or, since the hen lobster is the tastier, should one say queen? Although there are hundreds of recipes featuring lobster, the true aficionado will tell you they are mostly an irrelevance.

The better the lobster, the less you will need to do with it; it is only a large lobster, or an old lobster, or a coarse-textured lobster, or a frozen lobster, or a lobster not from British waters that will need a deal of assistance from the kitchen. All a cook has to do with, say, a perfect, young, sweet, Scottish lobster is to take care not to ruin it by, for instance, overcooking it. A 450g/1lb lobster needs no more than three to four minutes in boiling water. A 680g/112lb lobster, five minutes. Eat it hot, with a butter sauce; eat it cold with a mayonnaise. Don't mess about.

Anton Mosimann, the chef famous for promoting cuisine naturelle, always features lobster on the menu at his Belgravia club, Mosimann's. And unless they are unobtainable, he always uses Scottish lobsters. They are really very small, weighing less than 450g, and yield no more than 115g of meat (75 per cent of a lobster is waste, although some of that can be salvaged to make wonderful stocks and soups). But a 450g lobster is not, as you might think, a young lobster. In the cold waters of the UK they take six to seven years to grow to this size. Lobsters can live for 40-50 years. The largest of them, a metre long, have weighed a staggering 15kg, and are of no more interest to the cook than show leeks and giant marrows.

Anton Mosimann has developed the simplest method imaginable of cooking lobster: he gives it three minutes only, in boiling water, which tightens the flesh so it doesn't break up when shelled. When ready to serve it, he does no more than lightly fry the tail meat for one minute each side in oil with some fresh herbs. He uses the head and tail shells to reassemble the lobster on the plate, and may serve it with a few salad leaves.

Next to fresh lobster, his favourite lobster dish is a souffle, exquisitely delicate and sweet. He reckons to have baked 30 lobster souffles a day for the past 20 years, and has probably cooked with lobster every day since, as a boy, he started his career in Switzerland.

He remembers the excitement of receiving the air-freighted crates of live black lobsters (they turn red only on cooking). "In Switzerland they were considered a rare treat, and were handled with love and care."

Not half so much, though, as the care and respect afforded by the lobster fishermen. A lobster's two unequally sized claws are more than a match for a man's finger: the larger one is the thumper claw with a vice-like grip; the other is a ragged saw. Part of the appeal of lobsters is a sense that they are untamed creatures of the wild. There is no way yet of catching them in bulk, and it hasn't been found practical to try farming them (give it time). Each single creature has to be teased and trapped into a lobster pot whose design came in with coracles.

The sight of lobster pots in British fishing ports remains one of the more charming aspects of the modern fisherman's life. The lobster breeding grounds are well known, usually rugged terrain that affords protection against predators. In spite of their armoury, there are times of the year when lobsters change their shells and are vulnerable. Hence their skill at disguise and their nesting places in wrecks of old boats. Some fishermen have found a perfect use for old bangers, running them into the ocean at low tide.

Lobsters are as unfriendly to each other as they are to man, indulging cannibalistic urges if put, untied, into a vivier (cold water tank) with their fellows. When captured, these normally slow-moving creatures are galvanised into frenzied bursts of activity. They fan the five segments of their tail, and lash the water, hurling themslves backwards like rocket, like oarsmen at the start of the Boat Race.

There is an on-going argument as to what might be the kindest way to kill a lobster. The so-called "scream" of a lobster dying in a pot of boiling water is disturbing, but it is surely a myth - the sound being the noise of air escaping. But chefs don't relish a charge of cruelty, and debate the merits of various means of killing. The traditional way, perhaps the quickest and best, is to pierce the back of the skull with a sharp-pointed knife. Anton Mosimann, however, favours immersing the head in boiling water to despatch the lobster swiftly and effectively. The rest of the body can then be immersed to cook, but take care not to do this too hastily, as it will lower the water temperature to below the lethal boiling point. The idea that the kindest way is to start cooking your lobster in cold water, so that it drowsily surrenders life, is now discredited.

Having said there is no lobster like a Scottish lobster, the professional chef with a responsibility for banqueting can't always afford to be too sniffy. Canadian lobster cost perhaps three-quarters the price of the native variety. At the Savoy Hotel, the Maitre Chef des Cuisines, Anton Edelmann, admits to using both. "Scottish lobster is best - firm, sweet, with good flavour - but Canadian lobster isn't bad. The rule is, if we are going to serve it straight, it needs to be Scottish. If we are going to play around with it, mask it with sauces and so on, it can be Canadian."

The perfectionist chef with concerns for conservation faces a dilemma. "The Canad-ians only send us males; it's illegal for them to take the hen lobsters. They are looking to the future, preserving valuable stock. I must admit when I buy Scottish lobsters, I always specify hen lobsters because they have the better flavour. But it's worth thinking about. At this rate, maybe in 10 years time we won't have a lobster industry."

The major importer of Canadian lobsters is a 30-year-old Scotsman, Fred Stroyan, trading as the New England Lobster Company. He worked in Canada with the big fishing company Clearwater, and can vouch for progressive attitudes there. "Juveniles [baby lobsters] are returned to the sea to help stocks to grow. They often return giant lobsters, weighing 15-30lb. The meat is pretty tough, it's true, but there is also an element of sentimentality." Stroyan imports 12,000 Canadian live lobsters a week, stocking them temporarily in his viviers in Smugglers Way, Wandsworth, south London.

The advantage of the Canadian lobster, he says, is consistency and efficiency. Given that they harvest 250 million pounds a year, twice as many as the US, and vastly more than we do, he can place an order at 4pm today and know he will have it waiting at Heathrow tomorrow at 9am. It takes at least half a day longer to get them from Scotland and then they arrive in all weights and sizes.

The popular sizes are between 450g/1lb and 600g/1lb 8oz, and 1.4kg/5lbs (these big ones are sold to airlines, where the tails are slices into 10 or 12 medallions for lobster salad). But one of Stroyan's customers, Christopher's in Covent Garden, which has an American bias, orders three- pounders (which serve two people). The chef, Adrian Searing, gets through 75 lobsters a week, usually split in two and chargrilled.

For his Seafood Restaurant at Padstow, Cornwall, chef Rick Stein buys Canadian and American lobsters to serve with other ingredients - such as his salad of avocado, green beans and duck livers. But he agrees with Anton Edelmann that if lobster is to be served straight, it has to be the superior Scottish variety. And if plateau de fruits de mer is the centrepiece of all the dishes presented at the Seafood Restaurant, lobster is the centrepiece of the plateau, simply served with mayonnaise and shallot vinegar (pictured above). Luxury of luxuries.

PLATEAU DE FRUITS DE MER

Serves 4

This dish is one of the great creations of French seaside restaurants. Lobsters, crabs, langous-tines, prawns, mussels, oysters, clams, winkles, whelks, sea urchins and any other shellfish that are available are piled up on a large platter on a base of crushed ice. It also uses those little unregarded shellfish such as winkles and whelks.

There are, of course, many versions of Plateau de Fruits de Mer. The recipe below is taken from The Gastrodome Cook-book, by Rory Ross.

2 lobsters 450g/1lb each, cooked

2 crabs 450g/1lb each, cooked

12 langoustines, cooked

12 clams, raw

12 queen scallops, raw

12 oysters, raw

230-450g/8oz-1lb whelks, cooked

230-450g/8oz-1lb winkles, cooked

6 lemons, cut into quarters

Accompaniments

2 shallots, very finely chopped

150ml/5fl oz good quality red wine vinegar

300ml/10fl oz mayonnaise

brown bread, freshly baked

Split the lobsters in two lengthways with strong kitchen scissors or with shears. Split the crabs in two and remove the "dead man's fingers".

On an attractive platter, arrange all the shellfish on a bed of seaweed and crushed ice. Decorate with lemon wedges.

For the accompaniments: make the shallot vinegar by combining the shallots with the vinegar at the last minute.

Serve the seafood platter with the shallot vinegar, mayonnaiseand thin brown bread. Don't forget to provide finger bowls.

SALAD ROSCOFF

Serves 4

2 eggs

1 live lobster, about 680g/112lb

mixed salad leaves

6 red and 6 yellow cherry tomatoes, halved

12 avocado, sliced

55g/2oz broad beans, shelled and peeled

14 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and sliced

For the vinaigrette:

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

12 teaspoon salt

12 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

250ml/8fl oz olive and/or vegetable oil

For the basil mayonnaise:

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 egg yolks

500ml/17fl oz vegetable oil (or light olive oil)

6 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves

salt and freshly ground white pepper

Boil two eggs for nine minutes, drain and cool in a bowl of cold water. When ready to assemble the salad, shell the eggs and cut lengthways into quarters.

To make the vinaigrette, place the vinegars in a small bowl or blender, add the salt, pepper and mustard, and stir or blend until dissolved. Whisk in the oil slowly, a tablespoon at a time at first, to allow it to be incorporated, then a little faster. Taste and adjust the seasoning. This can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.

To make the mayonnaise, whisk the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in a bowl until the salt is dissolved. Beat in the egg yolks, then whisk in the oil slowly, drop by drop. As the mayonnaise starts to thicken, you can add the oil slightly faster, but incorporate each addition fully before adding

more. Just before serving, add the chopped basil, taste and adjust the seasoning.

To cook the lobster, heat a big pan of water to a vigorous boil. Put the lobster in - head first then the whole of it - and let it cook for about 14 minutes. To stop the cooking process, plunge the lobster into ice-cold water. Shell and clean the lobster and slice the meat neatly.

To serve, toss the mixed salad leaves in the vinaigrette, and pile in the centre of each plate. Surround with red and yellow cherry tomatoes, the avocado sliced at the last minute, broad beans, cucumber slices, quartered hard-boiled eggs and lobster meat. Spoon over the basil mayonnaise, either in one generous dollop, or drizzled over the dish. Serve immediately.

LOBSTER WITH GINGER AND SPRING VEGETABLES

Serves 4

4 live lobsters, 450g/1lb each

1 recipe ginger shellfish court bouillon (see below)

1 small carrot, peeled

12 small cucumber, peeled

6 mushroom caps, trimmed and cleaned

1 shallot, cut into thin rings

80g/212oz fresh peas

2 level tablespoons grated lemon zest

15g/12oz unsalted butter, softened

For the broth:

6 level tablespoons double cream

3 level tablespoons trimmed, peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

30g/1oz unsalted butter

sea salt and freshly-ground white pepper to taste

To garnish:

small bunch of fresh tarragon, snipped with scissors

small bunch of fresh chives, snipped with scissors

Thoroughly rinse the lobsters under cold running water. In a large pot, bring the court bouillon to a rolling boil. With a pair of scissors, remove the rubber bands restraining the claws and plunge the lobsters, head first, into the court bouillon. Count-ing from the time the lobster hits the water, cook for five minutes. (They may be cooked one at a time.) Remove the pot from the heat, but leave the lobsters in the court bouillon for at least 30 minutes or up to one hour. They will continue to cook as they rest and the meat will remain moist.

Prepare the vegetables: with a 6mm/14in diameter melon baller, cut balls out of the flesh of the carrot, cucumber and mushrooms. Alternatively, chop the flesh into neat 6mm/14in dice. Toss the carrot, cucumber, mushrooms, shallot, peas and lemon zest with the softened butter. Set aside.

At serving time, preheat the oven to 200F/90-100C/Gas 14.

Carefully remove the lobsters from the court bouillon. Drain thoroughly, reserving the liquid. Remove the meat from the lobster: twist each large claw off the body of the lobster. Gently crack the claw shells with a nutcracker of hammer, trying not to damage the meat. Extract the meat with a seafood fork; it should come out in a single piece. Set aside. Gently detach the tail from the rest of the body. With a pair of scissors, carefully cut lengthwise through the back of the lobster and extract the tail meat in a single piece. With a small knife, remove the long, thin intestinal tract running the length of the tail meat.

Remove and discard the lumpy head sac, located near the eyes. Remove the pale green tomalley (liver) from the upper portion of the body cavity. Remove the dark green coral, if present. (Neither liver nor coral is used in this recipe.) If desired, carefully rinse the head and feathery antennae and, with a pair of scissors, cut the shell in half lengthwise to use as a garnish. Place all the lobster meat on a warmed platter, cover, and transfer to the oven to keep warm while finishing the broth.

Finish the broth: remove and strain 500ml/16fl oz of the court bouillon, and transfer to a medium-size saucepan. Warm over a low heat, and then whisk in the cream. Add the fresh ginger, lemon juice and butter, and taste for seasoning. Add the buttered vegetables, and heat until just warmed through.

To serve: arrange the pieces of meat from one lobster in each of four warmed shallow soup bowls. Spoon over the broth and garnish with the herbs. If desired, place the reserved lobster shells decoratively around the edges of the bowls. (Or prepare all in an elegant soup tureen and serve at the table.)

GINGER SHELLFISH COURT BOUILLON

Makes 4.5 litres/8 pints

1 large carrot, cut into thin rings

1 large onion, cut into thin rings

1 celery stick, thinly sliced

2 plump fresh garlic cloves

30g/1oz peeled and trimmed fresh ginger

bouquet garni

1 level teaspoon fennel seeds

1 level teaspoon white peppercorns

1 segment star anise

3 level tablespoons coarse sea salt

500ml/16fl oz dry white wine (preferably Chardonnay)

2 teaspoons white vinegar

grated zest of 1 orange

In a large stockpot, combine 4.5 litres/8 pints water with the carrot, onion, celery, garlic, ginger, bouquet garni, fennel seeds, peppercorns, anise and salt. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the wine, vinegar and orange zest and simmer for five minutes more. Strained, the court bouillon can be refrigerated for up to two days. Do not freeze or it could turn bitter.

WHAT TO DRINK: Cooked plain, lobster likes Chardonnay, and has a special affinity with Chablis, whose honeyed flavour blends in beautifully with the sweet flesh. A very expensive Chablis will probably be too characterful, slightly overpowering the lobster. Choose a simple Chablis, ideally a ripe one with not-too-high acidity (1990, 1991 or 1992 should be a good bet). Next best would be other, not-too-oaky European Chardonnays. Australian, Chilean New Zealand and Californian ones are likely to be too fruity or too oaky. German Riesling Kabinatt and Gruner Veltliner from Austria also chime in well with the flavour of lobster. If you feel your celebration demands fizz, choose a (Chardonnay-based) Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Ordinary Champagne and lobster make, for me, one of those rare, completely inappropriate, disgusting clashes.

caviar

THE SAD thing about this absolutely delicious gourmet treat is that it is perceived to be money to eat for people with money to burn. In Claridges, for example, 28g/1oz of Beluga caviar will set you back pounds 49.

Airlines offer it because it's flattering to their high-fare high-fliers. In fact, airlines are currently the major consumers and take up 85 per cent of the world's annual production of 400 tons. Air France buys the most: 18-19 tons a year. British Airways presents every first-class customer with a small jar and a mother-of-pearl spoon (don't think of eating with anything so vulgar as a metal one).

So who are the other customers? Hotels, of course. In the hotel chef's armoury a teaspoonful of caviar is the ultimate added-value weapon. Dress a nugget of poached fish with a necklace of these tiny black pearls and you achieve what is known in literary circles as suspension of disbelief. This is nothing to the suspense of waiting to settle the bill.

Those who have known no better than sterilised jars of lumpfish roe or even salmon roe (keta) can have no notion of the real thing. The sneering epithet "fishy jam" is far from the mark. In its pristine and perfect state, caviar is not fishy, having no smell at all (fishiness does unfortunately develop steadily on exposure to air and a temperature rising above 6C). Indeed, it is the very opposite of jam, consisting of thousands of distinctly separated globules.

Everyone knows that caviar is made from the roe of several kinds of sturgeon, huge fish caught in the Caspian sea. It used to be imported from the Russian side, but since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the UK buys mostly from Iran. Half the Russian catch now goes to Japan, and a large part to Russia itself, where there are people now rich enough to buy the best.

When you consider the simplicity of caviar processing, the cost is surprising. Fishermen net the catch, then cut out the huge black roes, which represent 15 per cent of the body weight. Women workers remove membranes, pressing the grains through net matting, rinse and salt them down (3-4 per cent salt by weight), then pack them in 1.8kg/4lb tins for export. The best are not pasteurised but preserved at a low temperature (minus 2C to minus 4C). In the days before refrigeration, much went to waste. The roes that hang around too long are good for nothing but spreading on the wooden roofs of the fishermen's huts - the practice of Volga fishermen at the turn of the century - where they provide very effective waterproofing.

Of the 29 varieties of sturgeon, only three feature in the production of Caspian caviar. Foremost among them is the huge Beluga, which can live to be 100, and can grow to one tonne in weight. Beluga sturgeon don't produce eggs until they reach the age of 18. Next is the Ocietra, which matures at 12 years. Third is the smaller Sevruga, which matures at eight years. The eggs are also proportionately large, medium and small. As is the cost; at Harrods Beluga caviar is pounds 1,300 per kilo, Oscietra pounds 716, and Sevruga pounds 636. (If you can't buy caviar locally, Morel Bros, Cubbett and Son, supply all three types by mail order: 0171-346 0046). Should you suspect someone of trying to pass off Sevruga as Beluga, squash a few grains and you'll see Beluga releases a grey oil, Sevruga a yellow oil.

I recently took part in a tasting of the three varieties. These were my notes.

Beluga: Large, soft grains, bluey-grey. Seems to melt in mouth. Creamy, nutty, only slightly salty; sweet and subtle.

Ocietra: Yellowish, nicotiney colour, though it varies. Smaller grain. A zippier, sharper, more pronounced flavour, slightly bitter. It's been compared to a brie of a certain ripeness. People generally like it or hate it. I like it. I love them all.

Sevruga: Smallest grain. Greeny-grey. Less dense than the other two, smooth, saltier, chalky (but this might have been a one-off, owing to the taste of borax, a tiny amount of which is used as preservative).

I also tasted Golden caviar, extra large grains also known as Royal or Imperial. It is extremely rare and, as such, was hurried to the table of the shahs of Persia. It's not so much gold as yellowish-green.

Caviar adds little to cooking, which destroys all but its cosmetic appeal. Deprived of its essential texture, it contributes no more to a dish than would salt and tasteles oil. Eat it, instead, straight from a chilled dish on crushed ice. Lemon juice is an unnecessary accompaniment, throwing the natural flavour off balance. Serving caviar with chopped hard-boiled eggs, soured cream and chopped onion is a barbaric American practice, presumably designed for people who want to enjoy the cachet of eating something very expensive, but who do not like its taste.

I explained to Laura Morris of the importers W G White how I'd enjoyed the ritual of eating caviar with Russian friends. You take a piece of sour rye bread, sniff it, then chew it. You slap a blob of caviar in your mouth, chew and swallow. You rinse your salty mouth with a fiery slug of ice-cold vodka and swallow. You sniff and chew a piece of bread, and so on, becoming very animated, meanwhile. Ms Morris didn't approve. "You wouldn't want to drink vodka with this caviar. It burns your mouth. Champagne is better."

Is it? Try for yourself. Hurry on down to the Dorchester, where there's a bar in the Promenade entrance offering caviar and a glass of Krug (for pounds 22 to pounds 39), or a choice of a dozen Russian, Polish, Swedish and Finnish vodkas. If in the mood, splash out on a bottle of vintage Krug ('73, '76 or '85) at pounds 200-odd. Don't forget your credit card.

CREPES PARMENTIER

Serves 4

For the crepes:

450g/1lb potatoes, peeled and diced

3 teaspoons plain flour

3 eggs

4 egg whites

50ml/2fl oz double cream

50ml/2fl oz milk

salt and freshly ground black pepper

vegetable oil

Pre-heat the oven to 110C/ 225F/Gas 4. Put the potatoes in the top of a steamer or double-boiler over simmering water and cook until soft, then mash with the flour. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the oil.

Heat a small frying pan with a film of vegetable oil across the bottom. When it starts smoking, pour a quarter of the potato mixture into the hot pan. You need to have it about two-thirds full. When the crepe is nicely brown, flip it over and cook the other side. Keep warm in the oven until all four are cooked.

For the topping:

110g/4oz smoked salmon

4 teaspoons creme fraiche

4 teaspoons Sevruga caviar

1 tablespoon chives, chopped

1 lemon, cut into quarters

Place each pancake in the centre of a dinner plate, put smoked salmon in the middle, place a spoonful of creme fraiche on top, then a generous spoonful of caviar. Sprinkle with chives and garnish with the lemon quarters.

SCALLOP AND CAVIAR PILLOWS

Serves 4

8 large scallops (3.5-5cm/112-2 inches)

30g/1oz unsalted butter, melted

2 level tablespoons Sevruga caviar coarsely cracked

white pepper to taste

For the sauce

zest of 1 lemon, cut into matchsticks

2 shallots, very finely chopped

45g/112oz unsalted butter

3 tablespoons of Chardonnay

3 tablespoons mussel cooking liquid

350ml/12fl oz double cream

1 teaspoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice

sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

1 tablespoon Sevruga caviar

2 level tablespoons fresh chives, snipped

sea salt, for garnish

Rinse the scallops and pat them dry. Remove the little muscle on the side of each and discard. Using a thin, sharp knife, slice each scallop horizontally into four equal slices. With a brush, very lightly butter one side of each scallop slice. On a small, chilled, ovenproof salad plate, arrange four scallop slices, buttered side down, in a circle; the slices should not overlap. Place a small spoonful of caviar on top of each scallop slice. Place a scallop slice, buttered side up, on top of the caviar, to form little scallop sandwiches. Repeat this on three other salad plates. Sprinkle with several grains of coarsely cracked (not ground) white pepper. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/ 180C/Gas 4.

To make the sauce, bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Place the lemon zest in a fine-mesh sieve and submerge it in the boiling water for 10 seconds. Drain. Finely chop the zest and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the shallots and 30g/1oz of the butter over a moderate heat. Cook until soft and translucent, two to three minutes. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and boil for two to three minutes to burn off the alcohol. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large saucepan. Add the mussel cooking liquid, cream, lemon zest and lemon juice. Cook over high heat until reduced by half (about five minutes). Remove from the heat and whisk in the remaining butter, whisking constantly until all the butter is incorporated and the sauce is smooth and creamy.

Remove the prepared scallops from the fridge and place the plates in the preheated oven for one minute. The scallops should just begin to warm, no more. Add the caviar to the sauce and stir to blend. Remove scallops from the oven and divide the sauce among the four plates, evenly covering scallops. Sprinkle each plate with chives and salt; serve immediately.

CAVIAR WITH CREAMED EGGS

Serves 4

4 very fresh eggs

2 x 30g/1 oz pots of Iranian Sevruga caviar

1 tablespoon finely-chopped onion

1 teaspoon chopped chives

2 teaspoons fromage blanc

1 teaspoon salt, a pinch of pepper

Slice the tops off the raw eggs with a fine saw-edged knife, sawing the shell delicately about 1cm/12in above the widest part; empty the shells, keeping both parts. Carefully wash in hot water and put to dry on a cloth.

Beat three of the four eggs. Strain them through a wire sieve to remove pieces of shell and the strings in the egg whites.

Pour the beaten eggs into a small heavy-based saucepan, and put them over a low heat. Beat them vigorously with a small whisk, until the eggs start to form a light cream. Take the pan off the heat. Season with salt and pepper. Still stirring add the fromage blanc and the chopped onion and chives.

Put the washed and dried egg shells into the egg cups. Fill them three- quarters full with the creamed egg. Finish by filling each one to the top with 15g/12oz of caviar and cover the top with the tops of the egg shells. You can just see the caviar under these little bonnets.

oysters

OYSTERS are considered a great luxury today, as they were in Imperial Rome, in the First century AD, when the plumpest and best of them were imported from Britain, from West Mersea, Colchester and the River Colne. In the intervening centuries, however,they've been in and out of fashion.

A hundred years ago, no well-to-do person would be seen eating an oyster. Charles Dickens had Sam Weller speak of them thus: "Poverty and oysters always seem to go together.The poorer the place the greater call there seems to be for oysters. Blessed if I don't think that ven a man's wery poor, he rushes out of his lodgings and eats oysters in reg'lar desperation."

Now, the wery poor do not turn up in strength at Britain's top-class modern restaurants, where oysters are once more in demand. Sir Terence Conran led the way when, seven years ago, he set up an Oyster Bar outside his flagship restaurant, Bibendum. The three-star restaurateur Marco-Pierre White includes oysters in many of the most successful of his flamboyant culinary creations. And these days you can expect to find them on the menu of every restaurant of style, to be eaten raw, with lemon, by the half-dozen or dozen, or incorporated into other dishes as a means of adding value. Correction: as a means of adding price. For example: grilled steak, pounds 9.99; grilled steak with oyster, pounds 19.99.

To the French, who eat a billion of them a year, oysters are not so much gourmet food as street food. They are eaten by almost the whole nation on Christmas Eve. But in Britain they have acquired something of a snob status, not always or entirely merited.

There could not have a been a boom without a line of supply. And the truth is that the rock oyster which now comprises 95 per cent of production is not the one that has been earning its gourmet reputation throughout the century, the so-called "native".

The contrast is not, perhaps, so extreme as that between farmed and wild salmon, and in any case all oysters are farmed. The native flat-shelled Ostrea edulis (famously from Helford, Whitstable, Colchester) is basically sweet, firm and meaty. But when the oyster disease, bonamia, decimated stocks, oyster farmers established new beds using the disease-resistant rock or Pacific oyster (Crass-ostrea gigas), which has frillier shell, less substantial, rather fatty flesh, and a not- unpleasant metallic flavour. An added advantage is that the rock oyster matures in two to three years, a year or so earlier than the natives, and can be eaten all the year round. To reach maturity, a prime Galway native, from grade one waters (the cleanest), may take six to seven years, and natives have a season (September to April).

Modern science has stripped oyster farming of its mystery, and over the years I have measured the growth in expertise from the early modest days in Suffolk and Essex, to mega-operations on Scotland's and Ireland's west coasts, and more recently on Jersey, where the oysters were the best I have tasted.

It was Auguste Escoffier, when chef at the Savoy at the turn of the century, who introduced the French custom of serving oysters raw on a bed of crushed ice with nothing but a wedge of lemon. It is surprising that we British, squeamish as we are, have embraced a food so slippery, salty and slimy. And, indeed, early cookery books suggest that we have in the past preferred them cooked. Mrs Beeton has many recipes for oysters: devilled; fried; stewed; even, absurdly, as a sausage, with chopped veal, suet and bread. Books tell, too, of oysters grilled in their shells, with a blob of butter, or lightly poached with herbs. The first English cookbook, A Forme of Curye (from the French cuire, to cook), by Richard II's cook, describes how he prepared them for the king, shelled, simmered in their own juices briefly, the strained juices thickened with ground almonds and rice flour then sweetened with sugar, mace and ginger.

From our earliest history, oysters were eaten by everyone in Britain, rich and poor (the diarist Pepys served a barrel of them for breakfast on New Year's Day, together with tongue, anchovies and Northdown ale). In Victorian times, they became vulgarised, perhaps partly due to the custom of pickling them in throat-burning malt vinegar. Then, suddenly, in the greedy rush to supply the growing city conurbations, the oyster beds were almost emptied. And it was the oyster's rarity that eventually put it back on the map. It returned, thanks to Monsieur Escoffier, in a completely new guise.

Such is the perceived authority of this great French chef, that many of us (myself included) are persuaded that oysters must be eaten raw. But I don't go along with most French people who serve them with a bowl of chopped shallots in red wine vinegar; nor with the Anglo-American style of dripping Tabasco on them.

If you don't want to pay inflated restaurant prices for this treat, buy oysters from a good fishmonger. But (you may well ask), how the heck do you open them? Answer: with difficulty, with a short-bladed knife, and with a thick towel wrapped round your hand. More simply, pop them in a microwave for 20 seconds. Or prop them, so as not to spill their liquor, in a steamer for four minutes (use seaweed if you have it). Or place on a hot grill top for two or three minutes till they open, finishing the job with a knife if necessary.

WHAT TO DRINK: The French wash their Christmas oysters down with Muscadet. And you can't beat Muscadet sur Lie with simple, fresh oysters. The nearest contender is Champagne Blanc de Blancs. New World wines tend to be too ripely fruity, too oaky, or too flavourful. The high acidity of Muscadet, Champagne or simple Chablis is especially appropriate if you serve your oysters with lemon juice or - as many French people do - with vinegar. If not, you might try a few softer European whites from Spain: Rueda, Penedes and Conca de Barbera whites work well. Or try Frascati or Soave from Italy. Oysters taste really horrible with red wines, making the wines seem more toughly tannic than they really are. Similarly, they clash with the wood tannin of oaked white wines, and the "accidental" tannin present thanks to careless winemaking in some cheap of the whites.

WHAT TO DRINK: Wine writers usually fall back on the Russian accompaniment of vodka, while suggesting Champagne and fine Chablis as second-best. However, simple, inexpensive, unoaked Chardonnays seem to go best. Choose one from the south of France, north Italy, Hungary, or the more modest type of white Burgundy - simple Bourgogne Blanc or Macon-villages; not Meursault or Chablis Premier Cru, and not New World Chardonnays. Italian Bianco di Custoza or an upmarket Soave Classico make excellent matches. Fizz is seldom dry enough to be ideal, but Cremant de Bourgogne will do at a pinch. And nothing can beat a good expensive vodka, freezer-chilled, with these costly fish eggs.

OYSTERS WITH CHAMPAGNE SABAYON

Serves 4

20 oysters

salt

200ml/7fl oz champagne

1 recipe Veloute for Fish (see below)

25g/1oz caviar (optional)

20 tiny sprigs chervil

Remove the oysters from their shells carefully, and pass the juice through a piece of muslin into a bowl. Quickly wash each oyster in lightly salted water to remove any remaining bits of shell, and place in the juice.

Boil the bottom shells, and clean thoroughly. Poach the oysters in the champagne and a little of their own juices for 45 seconds on each side. Do not allow them to boil (they are best if kept below 80C/176F).

Remove the oysters, turn up the heat and rapidly reduce the cooking liquor by half. Lower the heat, add the veloute sauce, and cook until it reaches a coating consistency. Froth it with a hand blender.

To serve, place one hot oyster in each shell and pour some sauce over the top. Put half a teaspoon of caviar on each oyster, plus a sprig of chervil.

VELOUTE FOR FISH

Makes 4 portions

6 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

15g/12oz unsalted butter

500ml/17fl oz white wine

500ml/17fl oz Noilly Prat

1 litre/134 pints double cream

1 litre/134 pints fish stock

Cook the shallots in butter until softened, without colouring.

Deglaze with the white wine and Noilly Prat and boil to reduce to a syrup. Add the fish stock and boil to reduce by half.

Add the cream, bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes to reduce to a coating consistency. Pass through a fine sieve.

Chill, covered with clingfilm if you are not using it immediately.

PIERRE KOFFMANN'S POACHED OYSTERS

Serves 4-6

24 oysters

75g/3oz butter

30g/1oz flour

750ml/112 pints milk

200g/7oz mushrooms, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

100ml/4fl oz sour cream

3 egg yolks, beaten

100g/312oz fine breadcrumbs

salt and white pepper

Open the oysters over a bowl to catch their juices. Shell them and strain the juices through muslin. Keep the oysters and juices in a bowl.

Prepare a bechamel sauce: melt the butter, mix in the flour and cook until frothy. Whisk in the milk and cook over medium heat, stirring all the time until smooth and thick. Add the mushrooms and parsley along with the oyster juices. Season and simmer for 15 minutes.

Heat the sour cream with the rest of the milk and mix into the bechamel. Check the seasoning and keep hot.

Season the oysters, dip into the egg yolks and roll in the breadcrumbs. Quickly fry them in very hot butter until brown. Pour the soup into hot bowls and garnish with fried oysters.

ANTON MOSIMANN'S POACHED OYSTERS

Serves 4

24 small lettuce leaves

24 oysters

15g/12oz shallots, finely chopped

225ml/8fl oz fish stock

15g/12oz each of carrot, leek and celery, cut into fine julienne strips

squeeze of lemon juice

salt and freshly ground pepper

Plunge the lettuce leaves into boiling water. Return to the boil then remove at once to ice-cold water. Drain well and remove any coarse stems.

Open the oysters with a small strong knife. Strain the liquid into the fish stock and reserve. Remove oysters from the shells and cut away tendons. Season with pepper. Wrap each oyster in a lettuce leaf. Reserve and wash shells, and warm them.

Gently saute the shallots without colouring in a non-stick pan. Add the fish stock, with the oyster water, and heat to a gentle simmer. Add the oyster packages and poach for 15 seconds. Remove the oysters and keep warm. Boil stock rapidly until reduced by half.

Add the carrot, leek and celery julienne and cook for one minute. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Place an oyster package back in each shell and spoon the sauce over. Serve at once.

OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER

Serves 2

450g/1lb fresh spinach

12 oysters, opened, with juice reserved

50g/2oz finely chopped shallots

2 garlic cloves, crushed

25g/1oz unsalted butter

1 heaped tablespoon thick cream

1 tablespoon Pernod

pinch of hot red pepper-flakes

50g/2oz grated Gruyere cheese

freshly ground black pepper

Wash the fresh spinach and heat gently in just the water that adheres to the leaves for three to four minutes until wilted; drain well and squeeze. Chop finely. Arrange the oysters on a flat, nonstick baking dish. Saute the shallots and garlic in the butter, add the spinach, oyster juice and pepper. Add the cream and bring to a simmer. Puree the mixture in a blender. Return to a clean pan. Add the Pernod and pepper flakes. Heat gently, stirring occasionally.

Spoon the mixture over each oyster then sprinkle with the cheese. Place under a hot grill until the cheese sizzles - two to three minutes. Serve immediately with whatever you choose; tiny pasta shells go well.

foie gras

BRITISH people are more likely to know how foie gras is produced than how it tastes. It's not part of our culture to eat this buttery, smooth goose-liver pate. There are plenty of geese in Britain but we have no tradition of overfeeding them to produce the requisite enlarged livers. Nevertheless, foie gras remains one of the cornerstones of Anglo-French cooking in Britain, and none who seek Michelin's accolades would dare to exclude it totally from their menu.

There's foie gras and foie gras. For an item of such value, its very name, in French, is miserable: foie gras - greasy liver. It is the fat liver from Strasbourg, in Alsace, which is most highly renowned, processed into "blocs", or combined with pork fat to make pate de foie gras. In other parts of France, though, goose livers are provided, fresh or processed, to restaurants, which prepare them in their own ways. Perigord is a major producer, famous also for its duck livers.

Both kinds of liver have their supporters. Goose liver is the more expensive as well as being the denser and more compact. The famous three-starred London chef, Pierre Koffmann, who comes from Gascony where both sorts of foie gras are made, draws this distinction: foie gras of goose is the better eaten cold; foie gras of duck lends itself to hot dishes, contributing more flavour.

Much of the flavour of foie gras comes from the fat, the quality rather than quantity. If liver, when cooked, yields 15-20 per cent fat, this is considered very good. If it yields as much as 50 per cent, it is poor stuff.

The real credit for quality depends upon the farmer, and upon the care taken with the overfeeding (the gavage). But do we really want to know about this?

In Foods from France (Ebury Press, pounds 15.99), the writer Quentin Crewe dismisses as myth the picture of cruel farmers nailing down reluctant geese by their webbed feet in order to massage the maize down their long throats to produce oversized livers. He firmly believes that only happy birds respond to gavage. For the first four months or so, he says, the birds lead normal, farmyard lives; then the ducks are subject to 12 days of gavage, and the geese to 17-25 days. Tubes are introduced into the birds' throats and they are fed mechanically for a 30-second burst. This is done three times a day, a total of a kilo of maize going down at each feeding. "They soon settle down and accept feeding without any trouble," one farmer reported. Mr Crewe concludes: "I'm satisfied there are far more brutal things done to animals by food manufacturers than ever befell a Gascon goose."

Most of us don't get to cook with foie gras, so I am grateful to Jean- Christophe Novelli, the new-wave chef at The Four Seasons Hotel in Park Lane, London, for this tutorial.

Novelli has been a hit with restaurant critics because of his enterprising use of flavoursome offal in his cooking, from sweetbreads and brains, pigs' cheeks and cockscombs, to the kidneys and the livers of every sort of edible creature. Foie gras, he says, is very special, a buttery essence that traps flavours and can be used to redistribute them. The traditional chef's terrine of foie gras, he thinks, has had its day, although for generations every classic French restaurant would make up one of these each week. For one thing, foie gras is not the rarity it was. "There is bigger production in France today, as well as imports from Hungary, Eastern Europe, even Israel." It is not the scarcity, then, but the cooking properties of foie gras that intrigues him.

This unique product, savoury and sweet, with a firm but delicate texture, may be used, for example, in ambitious terrines in which unexpected flavours combine. An example? Jean-Christophe Novelli unwraps a marbled terrine with chunks of beige and amber morsels of sweetbreads and crayfish, and unmistakeably, an unctuous core of pink foie gras. It is quite, quite delicious.

Now to Lesson One. We have two pale yellow duck livers, each larger than a hand. Novelli commands me to taste a thin slice of the uncooked liver. "You must do this. You must understand what it tastes like." I nibble it. Bland, slightly bitter, certainly not nice, but not disgusting. "It's very unpleasant," he states. Now he cuts off a half-inch nugget, seasons it, places it on the hotplate. In 30 seconds it is sizzling. Hot fat, the colour of butter, is running off. Then some juices. Novelli turns the foie gras and cooks it for 30 seconds. It smells wonderful and the taste is sweet, savoury, nutty.

Lesson Two. With a surgeon's delicacy, Novelli shows me how to cut open the liver, to extract the invisible traces of membrane and nerve. If you are to use it in a terrine you must do this. He seasons the liver generously with salt and freshly-milled pepper, transfers it to a plate, covers it with clingfilm, and leaves it for 10 minutes.

The salt starts a "cooking" process and soon we can taste the difference. Now he dribbles on the alcohol, a tablespoon each of cognac, Madeira and port, and massages it into the liver with his fingertips. The liquor reacts with the liver to produce a heady aroma. While tradition demands that this now be left several days, Novelli, by working with small quantities, has evolved a short cut. After just a few hours, he rolls the liver into a sausage about 4cm/112in wide, wraps it in several layers of clingfilm, and finally in aluminium foil. He plunges it into boiling water for a minute only, and when it has cooled he can use it with other ingredients in his dishes.

Such as? Terrines with chunks of lobster, crayfish, sweetbreads, chicken breast, ham, cooked vegetables. Or as a miniature stuffing for nuggets of poached chicken. Or in a salad of mixed leaves. Or melted into a sauce to accompany beef, veal or any grilled meat. "When you understand the philosophy, there is no limit to the ways you can use it."

WHAT TO DRINK: In south-west France, they'll serve you sweet wine with your foie gras. And it matches brilliantly, far better than any dry wine. Down in the foothills of the Pyrenees, it will probably be sweet Jurancon, which does go well , but the really stunning matches are with sweet Bordeaux (Sauternes, Barsac or the cheaper wines from the nearby premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, Graves Superieures, Cadillac, Ste-Croix-du- Mont or Loupiac), or Monbazillac, a little to the east of Bord-eaux. In the years when Sauternes and Barsac get an added pungency from "noble rot", the combination with foie gras is especially divine (look out for 1983, 1986, 1990 and, for some chateaux, 1988 and 1989). Other stars are the sweet Tokay Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive from Alsace, sweet Recioto di Soave, or sweet Riesling from Australia or South Africa. If you must have dry, go for an expensive (pounds 6 and up) Australian dry Riesling.

PIERRE KOFFMANN'S OEUFS AU PLAT AU FOIE GRAS

Serves 4

4 slices fresh foie gras, 1cm/12 inch thick (about 110g/4oz each)

salt and freshly ground pepper

4 fresh farm eggs

red wine vinegar

Season the foie gras with salt and pepper from the mill. Heat four individual flameproof gratin dishes on the hob without adding any fat. When they are very hot, put a slice of foie gras in each dish. It will give off a great deal of fat; you may prefer to pour some off at this stage. Crack the eggs into the dishes beside the foie gras, cook for a minute, then turn the foie gras and cook for one more minute. Pour a few drops of vinegar round the edge and serve.

FOIE GRAS WITH SWEETCORN PANCAKE

Serves 6-8

70g/212oz plain flour

12 teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

milk (see method)

230g/8oz tinned sweetcorn, drained

a little groundnut oil

1 foie gras

salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the pancake batter, mix the flour, baking powder and eggs in a bowl and add milk, a little at a time, to give a thick pouring consistency. Allow to stand for one hour, then add the sweetcorn and season well.

Heat a small blini or pancake pan until very hot and add a film of oil. To make the pancakes, drop spoonfuls of mixture on to the pan and spread very thinly to about 5mm/14 inch thick. Cook for a minute or two on each side.

Cut the foie gras into long escalopes, about 5mm/14 inch thick, or 85- 110g/3-4oz each. Season well and fry in a very hot, dry frying pan about 20 seconds on each side.

Serve the escalopes on the pancakes, absolutely plain.

NICO LADENIS'S FOIE GRAS WITH ORANGE ON TOASTED BRIOCHE

Serves 2

55g/2oz brown sugar

4 tablespoon clarified butter

6 orange segments, pith removed

200ml/7fl oz veal stock

30ml/2 tablespoons cognac

30g/1oz good butter

15ml/a tablespoon hazelnut oil

salt

4 small leaves of lamb's lettuce

2 small leaves of oak-leaf lettuce

2 slices of brioche

2 slices of fresh foie gras, each 1cm/12in thick and weighing about 110-150g/4-5oz each

Preheat the grill so that it is very hot. Melt the brown sugar in the clarified butter and brush the orange segments. Caramel-ise under the grill for 20 seconds and keep warm. Do not cook them through or they will fall to pieces. Set aside.

Over a high heat, rapidly reduce the veal stock until you have a tablespoonful left. Add the cognac and a knob of butter and simmer until the sauce is thick. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Pour the hazelnut oil and the salt into an empty bowl and brush the bowl with the lamb's lettuce leaves. Do the same with the oak-leaf lettuce leaves. Arrange the lightly-oiled leaves decoratively on one side of each of two serving plates.

Toast the slices of brioche and place one slice of toast on each plate, on the opposite side from the salad leaves.

Heat a cast-iron frying-pan to a very high temperature. Put the slices of foie gras in the pan without any fat. Turn over with a palette knife after 15 seconds and season lightly with salt.

Place the foie gras on the brioche and arrange the caramelised oranges on top. Pour over the sauce. Serve with Sauternes or another good quality white dessert wine.

Chef's note: There is one vital thing to remember about foie gras. Because the liver is full of fat, if it is left in the fridge it solidifies and becomes hard. But if it is left in an ambient temperature in the kitchen it will be too soft and floppy to handle. Therefore, remove the liver from the the refrigerator and leave it in room temperature for no more than 30 minutes to an hour before you intend to begin preparing a dish.

By the time you finish the process of deveining the liver, scraping off the membrane and removing the dark green bile located at the tip between the two lobes, your liver should be soft and supple. If it begins to get too soft, put it back in the refrigerator to firm up.

When buying foie gras, make sure it is good quality. Touch it with your finger. If it's very hard, it is too fatty and will lose a lot of fat in cooking. If it is too soft, it will disintegrate in cooking.

truffles

TRUFFLES: supreme gourmet experience or affectation and absurd expense? Well, they're certainly costly. The white truffles of Piedmont sell for pounds 1,000 a kilogramme; the black truffles of Perigord, for pounds 400- pounds 500.

The white truffle may not be the greater delicacy nor is it, in practice, the more expensive: the French argue that the price is essentially the same, since you need to use twice the volume of the more delicately scented black truffles. They further maintain that the more assertive white truffles may be fine strewn on a risotto but are useless in cooking. The black Perigord truffle, by contrast, while divine raw, also has the power to perfume cooked dishes in a breathtaking way.

To many French chefs, the black truffle is the heartbeat of fine cooking, and no one is more excited by them than Michel Bourdin, chef of the stately Connaught Hotel these past 21 years. In his long career, he reckons to have spent (at today's prices) some pounds 4m on the "black diamonds" of Perigord. "For that money I could have bought The Dorchester Hotel which was up for sale for pounds 4m when I arrived in England in 1974."

It's impossible, he says, not to become an addict once you've taken part in a truffle hunt, joining the chase, with rooting pigs and dogs a-digging under the oak trees. And when you find them - ah, the smell! What is this perfume? It's plainly erotic. Pigs identify the chemical testosterone, which is similar to the pheromones of human sexual encounter.

The Italian white truffle is perhaps more gaseous in odour, but - whatever the French say - lends itself to the forceful nature of Italian cooking.

Truffles have been in demand among the cognoscenti from Roman times. The Queen Mother, Bourdin confides, likes dishes flavoured with truffles, and when, this year, she sent her grandson along to have a look at the kitchens, M.Bourdin promptly created a truffle soup for him.

When truffles are not in season, Bourdin has to call upon his gold reserves: he leads me to a lock-up room with a walk-in freezer safe filled with tray after tray of peeled, frozen truffles, vacuum packed.

He buys from a tried-and-tested family firm because the truffle trade is, at the best of times, notoriously dodgy. In recent years, it has been rocked by the scandal of imported Chinese truffles, which should cost pounds 100 a kilo, but may be sold at pounds 500. You may find these in little jars at airports, labelled honestly enough if not priced so. They have dark skin, but pale flesh and an insipid flavour.

WHAT TO DRINK: Even the gentlest of wines can overwhelm truffles. To judge by other mushrooms - common field mushrooms, ceps, morels or shitake - it is best to pair truffles with mature reds, with their softened tannin and mellowed fruit. Mature Pinot Noir is often a hit with fungi. Michel Bourdin recommends Cahors, the big red of the Perigord, for the black Perigord truffle. Gastronomic Italians in Piedmont, in north-west Italy, pair their white truffles with the big local reds made from the Nebbiolo grape, especially Barolo. They even claim to find hints of truffle flavour in their Nebbiolo wines. But it seems more likely that Nebbiolo would obscure the taste of the truffle.

LAMB'S LETTUCE, POTATO AND BLACK TRUFFLE SALAD

Serves 4

1-2 whole black truffles (55g/2oz)

150ml/5fl oz vinaigrette (see below)

10 small potatoes (about 90g/3oz each), scrubbed but not peeled

To garnish:

a handful of lamb's lettuce, rinsed and patted dry

coarse sea salt

fresh chives, very finely chopped,

At least three hours before you plan to serve the salad, begin the preparation: with a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler, carefully trim the truffles to form an even ball. Place the whole truffles in an airtight container and refrigerate. Save the truffle peelings for the vinaigrette.

Prepare the vinaigrette in a large bowl, and stir in the truffle peelings. Set aside.

Place the potatoes in a steamer, and steam until a skewer or fork inserted into a potato comes away easily - 15-20 minutes.

While the potatoes are still hot, peel them and slice into thin, even rounds 6mm/14 inch thick. Place them in the bowl with the truffle vinaigrette, and toss thoroughly. Cover, and set aside at room temperature for at least four hours, to allow the potatoes to absorb the vinaigrette. When you are ready to serve the salad, drain the potatoes, reserving the vinaigrette. Set both aside.

Remove the truffles from the refrigerator. With a sharp knife, slice them as evenly and thinly as possible. Dip the slices into the reserved vinaigrette (don't soak the truffle slices; you simply want to add a hint of the vinaigrette flavour).

On each salad plate, arrange the lamb's lettuce leaves petal fashion, just inside the edge of the plate. Now arrange the outer ring of alternating potato and truffle slices, working clockwise and slightly overlapping the lamb's lettuce. Arrange the second ring working anti-clockwise, again alternating the slices of truffle and potato, and slightly overlapping the outer ring. For the third ring, slightly overlap the second ring. Place a single slice of truffle in the centre of the "crown".

Carefully sprinkle each truffle with salt, and each potato with chives. Serve immediately.

VINAIGRETTE

Makes about 150ml/5fl oz

1 tablespoon best quality red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon best quality sherry vinegar

sea salt to taste

100ml/4fl oz extra-virgin olive oil

freshly ground white pepper to taste

1 level tablespoon minced black truffle

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegars and the salt. Add the oil in a small stream, whisking until it is blended. Season with pepper to taste. Now add the truffle, and stir to blend.

PERIGUEUX INDULGENCE

This is the height of decadence. The merge of truffles and port is a special one, and once marinated the truffle produces an essence of unsurpassed flavour. It may be stored for several months and used to add a touch of luxury to almost any sauce.

Makes 20

4 fresh truffles

about 150ml/14 pint ruby port

20 thin slices of baguette

unsalted butter for spreading

120ml/4fl oz veal stock

25g/1oz unsalted butter

salt and freshly milled pepper

Brush the truffles well under cold running water. Dry them with a kitchen towel and place in a small jar. Cover with the port and leave in a cool place for at least 24 hours.

Toast the baguette slices and spread generously with butter.

Thinly slice the truffles. Combine the veal stock with 50ml/2fl oz of the port strained from the truffles - store the rest in a jar in the refrigerator - and reduce by fast boiling until a syrupy consistency is reached. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter. Season to taste. Pass through a fine sieve.

Place the truffle slices in the hot sauce to warm through, then place a few on each slice of toast. Spoon a tiny amount of sauce on top and sprinkle with freshly milled pepper.

POTATO CAKE WITH FRESH TRUFFLES

Serves 4

60g/2oz fresh truffles

500ml/16fl oz double cream,

80g/3oz coarsely-chopped truffles

300ml/10fl oz truffle juice

2kg/412lbs potatoes

1 head celery

200g/7oz clarified butter

Boil the cream for 15 minutes to reduce it. Add truffle juice to it. Peel the potatoes and celery and cut them into 5cm/1in pieces.

Slice the celery pieces into rounds about 3mm/l6in thick and boil them in water. Then slice the truffles into rounds about 2mm/l8in thick and slice four potato pieces into rounds about 3mm/l6 inch thick.

Combine the celery, truffles and potatoes and add 25g/loz clarified butter. Season to taste.

Place a knob of butter in the bottom of a buttered mould. Lightly brown the truffle, celery and potato rounds on a buttered griddle. Deglaze the pan with a tablespoon of the cream and the truffle juice. Arrange three rounds of potatoes, one of celery and one of truffles alternately in the mould, adding a little cream between each layer.

Sprinkle the top with the chopped truffles. Complete with a layer of potatoes cut as thinly as possible.

Pour the rest of the cream over the mould and cover the mould with aluminium foil.

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180F/350F/Gas 4.

PARTRIDGE PIE WITH A SAUCE OF TRUFFLES

Serves 4

4 wild partridges

salt and pepper

1 savoy cabbage

25g/1oz truffle and a little truffle oil

50g/2oz semi-cooked foie gras (tinned)

225g/8oz puff pastry

water or a little beaten egg for egg wash

For the sauce Perigueux:

300ml/12 pint light veal stock

25ml/1fl oz Madeira

a few chopped truffles

300ml/12 pint stock made from partridge bones added to veal stock

Using only wild partridges, season them and roast a la goutte de sang (undercooked so that when the breast is punctured with a needle a pearl of blood appears) in the oven at 220C/425F/Gas 7 - this should take about seven minutes.

Allow the partridges to cool and then divide them into supremes, keeping the breast and thigh intact but removing the drumstick (The drumsticks can be used as a cold hors d'oeuvre). All the bones will go to make the partridge stock.

Blanch four good cabbage leaves large enough to form envelopes in boiling salted water. Refresh.

Cook the heart of the cabbage in boiling water for about five minutes. Drain and chop into small pieces, enough to stuff the four leaves.

Flavour this filling with a little truffle oil and some of the truffle cut into julienne strips. Adjust the seasoning.

Wrap the filling in the cabbage leaves so that you form small filled envelopes.

Cut the supremes diagonally in half. Place two supremes for each person side by side to make a heart shape.

Place the envelopes of cabbage and julienne strips of truffle in the middle.

Roll out the puff pastry into four squares large enough to encase the partridge. Place a layer of semi-cooked foie gras, cut very thinly, on the pastry, reserving another layer for the top. Add a few julienne strips of truffle and place the partridge and cabbage on top. Cover with a second layer of foie gras and truffle. Season.

Mould the pastry around the filling. Brush the pastry with water or light egg wash to ensure it sticks together. Allow to rest in the refrigerator for a few hours before cooking.

Cook in the oven at 200C/400F/ Gas 6 to start with for eight to 10 minutes and then down to 180C/350F/ Gas 4 for another eight to 10 minutes.

To make the Sauce Perigueux reduce the veal stock and partridge stock by one-third with the Madeira and truffles.

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