Our lunch was cordoned off from the restaurant at large, and I felt sure we were the envy of the other diners.
The table was a perfect square, an immaculate black tablecloth, and a total of eight places with a bottle of Spanish wine in front of each pair of people taking lunch. The waitress explained that the trufas in the mushroom risotto on the menu would be truffle oil rather than actual truffles.
The Russian and the Ukrainians had not enjoyed the flamenco the night before. It was not easy to ascertain why. Somehow, the chemistry had not quite worked, the magic had not quite flowed. Was it the politics? Or just the place the arranging company had chosen? Too cheesy, too touristified, too lacking in real passion? They did not talk about it over lunch.
The food at this hotel in Barcelona is exquisite… really great. I won’t say where it is, as to do so would invite contradiction, and anyway, to praise it would seem like a plug. But I love this hotel, even though I have only stayed on business trips. It feels friendly and right. I feel it’s like a secret, so why tell?
Over lunch, there was a valiant and constructive effort to communicate. The Ukrainians talked about technical matters related to the course, but maintained a kind of aloof and somewhat humorous distance. They worked with an oil company. The Russian talked with authority about doing business in the Caucasus, Iraq, Nigeria, Libya. They glared and smiled at each other, with the hostility of profound knowledge, the kind of ambivalence that siblings feel.
As an outsider, I had in mind a logic in which the sides in the “Russia-Ukraine crisis” were polarized, and would sit on each side of a long rectangular table, one opposite the other, glaring down and contradicting what their opposite number said. I have been in meetings where it splits down the middle like this, where each side racks up the score and counts.
But over lunch here, it did not feel like that. One of the course delegates had a Ukraine flag sitting cartoon-like on the table in front of him. I joked that I liked his flag, and invited the other delegates to bring their own. He smiled.
The waitress gave me the bottle of truffle oil to taste. She spoke Russian, Spanish and English. I spoke with her in Spanish, but her English was better than mine. When I went to pour the truffle oil, she held my hand. Very expensive. Muy caro. Cuidado!
With respect, I poured it on the side of my plate, a few small drops.
It wasn’t straw-coloured like the truffle oil I’d bought from Waitrose, which is noisome and tastes of a weird thick petroleum. This was pure clear truffle oil, in a bottle with a high neck, and when I smelt it… well… very difficult to describe! Not exactly nice, but definitely distinctive.
I had read about truffle wars in Italy, over the white truffle (magnatum); and in France, over the black Perigord truffle. Even the mafia are reputed to be involved. I guess I felt a kind of kinship with the truffle, and excitement at what it was or could be worth. They have found them now in all sorts of places.
It’s very difficult to congeal a thought, when such great interests are at stake, and the might of Russia and the Allies meet. But look at the fare, and think about eating in a canteen together!
We can consider the truffles, and we can value them, but they are worth nothing unless we have the space to love food together. We are much better off if we love food together. It is the basis of love. Let’s taste a truffle, and expand what we know; not taste a truffle, and seek to sequestrate it. It’s just not necessary.