An Introduction to Truffles
Once you’ve experienced that hard-to-pinpoint aroma of mushroomy, sweet, forest floor wafting towards you, it’s quite difficult to forget, says Emiko Davies.
The truffle, that mysteriously intoxicating and prized tuber, had long been thought to be a sporadic, natural occurrence held only in the secrets of the trees that attract them. The great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, who called truffles the “diamond of the kitchen,” lamented in 1825 that even the most accomplished truffle experts had not been able to find the secret to planting and harvesting them. Now we know that truffles can indeed be cultivated and after 20 years, Australia is finding its feet as one of the few countries outside of Europe that has created a blossoming black truffle industry.
Black truffles (Tuber melanosporum), also known as French black truffles or Perigord truffles, are tubers that grow just beneath the soil and fallen leaves of their symbiotic partners – the roots of specific tree species such as hazelnut, oak, beech and poplar. Growing in spring and maturing through autumn, they are usually ripe and ready to harvest in the winter. But come harvest time, humans aren’t actually able to find these little treasures on their own (one of Mother Nature’s little tricks). Instead, truffle growers have to put their trust in a willing partner with a good nose – traditionally a trained pig or dog. While female pigs are excellent at seeking out the pungent little nuggets, they have a tendency to want to eat them (who wouldn’t?) or to damage them, so more recently dogs have become the preferred truffle hunters.
In Australia, black truffles have been farmed since the 1990s, with the first groves of trees inoculated with Perigord truffle spores planted in Tasmania. Since then, Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales have followed suit. The cool climate areas of New South Wales’ Southern Highlands, Capital Country and the Central Ranges have seen new trufferies pop up successfully over the past decade, but not without some hard work, dedication and patient waiting behind the scenes – it can take several years before a grower sees their first truffle.
Without a centuries-old truffle culture like Europe’s, there was a need for more knowledge and promotion of the relatively new industry of local truffle growing and its culinary uses. Seeing this gap, Wayne Haslam of Blue Frog Truffles in Sutton founded the Australian Truffle Growers Association and started up the Capital City Truffle Festival, a festival held during the frosty months of June and July around Canberra that allows the public to indulge in truffle hunting, feasting and other truffle-related events while getting to know more about Capital Country’s truffle growers.
Capital Country has a cool climate that is said to be similar to the black truffle’s native Perigord region, so it is unsurprising that truffles have happily found a home in the soils around the ACT. The region’s truffle growers – most of them dedicated family-run farms of hazelnut and oak inoculated trees – are proving that the hard work is paying off and being recognised both locally and overseas. Braidwood’s Kate and Peter Marshall of Terra Preta have found success supplying truffles to top restaurants around NSW and exporting their produce to Asia, the US and even Europe, while Tarago Truffles are used by Sydney’s butter king, Pepe Saya, for a truly delectable truffled cultured butter.
Heading out of Capital Country and into the Southern Highlands, Frank Downes of Bonnes Truffles in Moss Vale not only sells fresh truffles but also uses them to make products such as truffled salts, truffled honey and truffle-infused oil. He’s also on a more challenging mission to discover the secrets behind white truffle cultivation – even more prized than black truffles, white truffles are one of the world’s rarest foods, found only in the forests of Italy and Croatia.
Even Central Ranges residents have been experimenting with truffle harvesting. Millthorpe Truffles is a seasonal favourite of the paddock to plate philosophy of chef Tony Worland of nearby Tonic restaurant – an example of how the availability of fresh, seasonal and local black truffles has been a much-welcomed addition to the Australian culinary scene and something that helps drive the promotion and use of locally-grown truffles.
Considering the relatively short season, the difficulty and uncertainty of harvesting them as well as their general worldwide rareness, black truffles come with a high price, hovering around the $2000-$2500 a kilo mark. Luckily a little goes a long way – you only need around 4-5 grams per person per serve, which won’t burn too large a hole in your wallet.
It’s best to use a freshly harvested truffle as soon as possible, when the aroma is strongest, and well within ten days. They tend to lose that special aroma and flavour with time and heat. Truffles can be stored in the fridge, wrapped in some clean paper towel and sealed in a glass jar. If they need to be cleaned, do so just before using. No need for fancy truffle equipment; a small, soft, new toothbrush will do the trick.
Truffles are best served as simply as possible to get the most out of the unique aroma – a swift grating of raw truffle over the humblest of dishes makes anything seem instantly special and just a little indulgent. Don’t cook it – just a little fresh truffle over the top of a perfectly cooked steak, some soft scrambled eggs or a bit of infusing in some melted butter is all that is needed. Truffles go especially well with fresh egg pasta, risotto and polenta or any dishes with butter, eggs, potatoes or cheese. The simpler, the better.
Emiko Davies is a food writer and photographer who, after spending seven years in Tuscany, is now based in Melbourne with her sommelier husband. She has contributed her food knowledge and keen eye to publications such as The Canberra Times, Maeve Magazine and Australia’s first magazine dedicated to cheese, The Cheese Mag, and she eats her way through restaurants and cafes for some leading food guides. She has a thing for historical cookbooks, regional Italian cuisine and sustainable, good food. Follow her on Twitter @emikodavies or on her blog at emikodavies.com