A time for reflection
I have been associated with the truffle industry in Australia and overseas since the mid ‘90s. I’ve seen the industry, domestic and international, from all angles, and whilst there are lots of great aspects, there is a darker side which brings into question the integrity of the European industry, and has the potential to sully the reputation of our fledgling industry. It is a combination of a lack of basic understanding of truffles, the mistaken misrepresentation of product, and deliberate falsification of product for commercial gain. The problem applies variously to all industry players, i.e. nurserymen, growers, chefs, restaurateurs, chefs, and journalists.
As I have alluded, poor understanding and misrepresentation, is widespread in the market place, and is compounding as the science of truffles grows at an exponential rate. Very few people associated with the industry have a robust understanding of the biology and taxonomy of this incredible and precious genus. To counter this situation, the challenge for all associated with the industry is to recognise and admit their lack of knowledge, ‘get informed’ and ask the right questions. Either way, the knowledge gap provides a fertile patch for misinformation on truffles to flourish, especially when it is fertilised by a bit of bull dust.
So why am I moved to write this op-ed? Because I’m frustrated by the ill-informed and sometimes malicious commentary regarding the comparative worth and/or culinary value of different truffle species that are grown in Australia. Tuber melanosporum, T. aestivum, T. brumale, T. borchii as commercial species are all established in Australia. Although T. brumale like T. maculatum, T. dryophilum, and T. puberulum are believed to have been accidentally introduced. It is apparent that all species found in Australia are found in New Zealand.
Globally, indisputably T. melanosporum and T. magnatum are recognised as the acme of blackish and whitish truffles, and attract high prices because of it. As a consequence of their reputation, these species are often faked, through substitution with lesser value truffle species and/or the common use (in restaurants and in truffle products) of synthetic aroma to boost the taste experience of diners with lesser grade examples of these species. Tuber magnatum (white Piedmont truffle) has not been successfully grown in truffle orchards here or elsewhere in the world, and is only harvested from the wild forests of Europe. Any claims to growing T. magnatum in a truffière should be received with a very healthy dose of scepticism.
Substitution with similar looking truffle species is common in the market place and often results in diners, without the experience, or knowledge, to discriminate the species or quality of what is on their plate, being disappointed with their truffle experience. Regrettably that substitution also manifests in nurseries that provide inoculated trees to would-be growers. The substitution may be a deliberate cost saving strategy, but more likely due to a lack of scientific knowledge and essential biosecurity. Disappointingly few new entrants to the industry avail themselves of DNA analysis to confirm the species truffle with which host tree seedlings have been inoculated.
As a result, T. brumale is now widely spread and has been found in all the established truffle growing regions in Australia, even Western Australia. Whilst this may not be the preferred situation, if all quarters of the industry clearly identify T. brumale, rather than hide it, this species of truffle has a place in the market place. The same applies to other species of blackish truffles, including T. indicum (a prohibited species in Australia) which if, incidentally, is allowed to ripen in the forest is a good eating truffle.
The United Nations Standards for truffles (2016) provides a grading assessment that applies to fresh specimens of the “ascocarps (fruiting bodies) of truffles of species of the genus Tuber…”. By way of example, it mentions T. melanosporum, T. magnatum, T. borchii, T. aestivum, T. brumale, T. uncinatum, T. mesentericum, T. macrosporum, T. gibbosum. The Standards also provide examples of common names of the afore-mentioned species. The purpose of the standards is to offer a standardised approach to assessing and reporting the quality of fresh truffles, of any species (of the genus Tuber). The Standards, as they stand, do not purport to be a definitive guide to common names, a list of species that could, or should be commercialised, or importantly, an up-to date taxonomic listing. Adherence to the Standards is meaningless unless truffle sellers are honest about the species represented.
To use common or scientific names
To be sure of referring to a truffle correctly and minimising the chance of confusion, it is important to use its current scientific name and, for ease of customer understanding, include the common name. For example, Tuber melanosporum, Périgord black truffle. (To be really exact note the italics and capitals.)
Also be aware that taxonomic descriptions can and do get updated. For example, T. albidum, was first coined by Andrea Cesalpino (an Italian physician, philosopher and botanist mycologist) in 1583. There has been ongoing debate as to what species he was referring to, and the name has been variously applied to a range of truffle species. It’s use has now been abandoned in favour of clear differentiation between the whitish truffle species that got caught up under its mantle – those species included T. borchii, T. maculatum, T. puberulum, T. dryophilum and even T. aestivum.
The ongoing, but incorrect, use of the taxonomic name T. albidum, primarily to enable unscrupulous traders to avoid scrutiny of the species they are dealing, has led to clear confusion in the market place. Such that T. maculatum, T. puberulum and T. dryophilum, all species of lesser taste and aroma, are regularly passed off as T. borchii which to the untrained eye is indistinguishable. This issue emanating from Europe, now applies in Australia and New Zealand where all but T. borchii have been introduced as contaminants, very much along the lines of T. brumale. This situation has two major consequences: T. borchii has been denigrated because of the failure to differentiate it from the other species, and without DNA species certification it is not possible to be sure that a batch of newly inoculated trees is not contaminated. Outspoken criticism of T. borchii is unwarranted, ignorant and, in some cases, clearly of malicious intent.
New techniques – new and extended risks
Further to the basic nursery stock contamination story is the imminent distribution of domestic and imported freeze dried truffles for use in Spanish wells or traditional tree inoculation. Investigations into quality control of freeze-dried truffle exporting operations in Europe have demonstrated only reject material emanating from the truffle processing room end up being frozen and packaged. This indicates that reject scraps, diseased truffle specimens, or even contaminating species are likely to be present in the frozen melange. Only the very best of sound truffles, preferably from your own truffière, should be used to boost the soil inoculum in Spanish wells. If a truffle has no commercial value, it should not be turned back into the truffiere. If you are tempted to purchase freeze dried truffle for inoculation purposes don’t depend on what it says on the label, you would be well advised to seek professional advice coupled with an independent DNA analysis of the mix.
I hope these ruminations will improve your understanding of some of the less desirable machinations of the industry and help you cut through some of the nonsense you’ll encounter as the season gets into full swing.
 UNECE STANDARD FFV-53 concerning the marketing and commercial quality control of TRUFFLES (2016 Edition)
Each year we run a workshop for members who are producing truffle that season to introduce the ATGA developed Australian Black Truffle Grading Standard (PDF).
This year it is hosted and introduced by NSW Highlands growers Richard and Jane Austen and Sue and Col Roberts.
Grading and Handling Truffle
Saturday 13th June, 2015
Venue: Hartley Truffles
Karingal, 2509 Great Western Highway
Bring: Some truffle if you can for grading.
This workshop is sponsored for members, non-members are welcome with $20 donation towards lunch.
Lunch will be provided, BYOG
This workshop will discuss truffle grading and handling aligning grade with the Truffle Grading Standard approved by the Association in 2012. This is a significant document but unfortunately it lacks images and smells boring. So a hands-on workshop like this is essential.
RSVP by 1st June to Richard Austen
Let’s try a series of posts and comments for New Members. We approve each comment so it’s not an instant message board, but we’re hanging around here pretty much every day. It helps other members if you add a bit of your location details, (but remember all that is available in our Members list available in your personal members area.)
Christine Fischer, who attended and spoke at our recent conference in Mittagong, has an upcoming tour for people who like to get their hands in the dirt, as well as their noses in the kitchen.
The tour will visit some rather remote and spectacular areas, and enjoy the rich culinary traditions of deep Spain.
They will dine on Black truffles and lovely Spanish wines.
Christine’s partner for this tour, Jose Santana, is a gem and hearty fellow, who knows all about the plants and fauna of his native Soria–both their names in every language and their traditional uses.
You can get all details here www.sitkaservicesllc.com.
- May 2018 newsletter
- A time for reflection
- How hot?
- 2017 ATGA Members Pests and Diseases Roadshow
- June Newsletter online
- NSW ATGA Members Grading workshop
- Great Southern Truffles Services for 2017
- Plant Health Australia Photo Competition
- Shock for importer of Tuber magnatum into Western Australia.
- Conference highlights – a captain’s pick