Truffles are a fungus and grow under the ground as a result of a symbiotic relationship with the roots of particular trees (such as oaks and hazelnuts) infected with the appropriate mycorrhiza (literally, fungus root). While they were originally were confined to the wild, the past century has seen considerable research, particularly in France, into developing the capability of cultivating them as a domestic crop. The truffles form in late summer and slowly mature during autumn and are ready to harvest in winter. They can be found breaking the surface of the ground or down to 200 millimetres deep and are best located by a trained dog, from the aroma they emit when ripening. The truffle then has to be assessed by a trained human nose to determine whether it is truly ‘ripe’ or should be left in the ground for another few days or a week before being harvested.
The aroma of the truffle has defied explanation, but then it is very hard to describe the aroma of garlic and other exotic spices. As Gareth Renowden says in The Truffle Book, the scent can be pervasive. This may prompt the question “what do they smell like?” and elicit an answer “Old socks and sex.” He goes on to say “Open the spice cupboard and take a deep sniff. Crush an unpeeled clove of garlic. Find some damp leaves and dig your fingers into the earth underneath (oak leaves are best). Then go for something floral ” lilies for penetration, roses for sweetness.”
What does it taste like? Like many exotic flavours, it is an acquired taste. Again, Renowden; “The aroma of T. melanosporum is musty and sweet, a very intense mushroom smell overlaid with other notes, especially what wine tasters call ‘forest floor’. It cooperates with the flavours in food enhancing and intensifying them. A steak with truffle sauce becomes more meaty, eggs are transformed into a gourmet item, and every aspect of the meal becomes more satisfying.
For chefs, the challenge of including fresh truffle in their menu can be daunting with the price of the truffle, the limited shelf life and the uncertaininty over the likely response from their customers to this new and exciting addition to Australian cuisine. To assist, we have prepared a simple guide on storing and using truffles for anyone wanting to include truffle as part of their seasonal culinary treat. Remember that Australia does not have a culture of truffle, as part of the cuisine, and the best way to introduce it to new customers is fresh and highly visible, where they can see the truffle and savour the aroma and taste, initialy on simple dishes.
Truffles continue to be somewhat of a mystery even after more than 3000 years of consumption . The ancient Greeks loved them and they were prized by the Romans. Theophrasus, a disciple of Plato and Aristotle wrote about them as did Pliny, the scribe who documented the destruction of Pompei.
Alexander Dumas in his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine wrote, “The most learned of men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber and, after two thousand years of argument and discussion, their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord”
There are many different varieties of truffle but for simplicity here, we will focus on the black or Perigord truffle (Tuber melanosporum), as currently grown in the northern hemisphere (Europe and America), and more recently being cultivated in Australia, New Zealand and Chile. Truffle growing in the southern hemisphere was started in New Zealand in the late 1980s as a government initiative and was quickly followed by work in Tasmania. The industry in Chile is in its very early stages. The major attraction of growing truffles in the southern hemisphere is to supply the ready established markets of Europe and America, during their off season, and to supply the rising markets of Southeast Asia. A big responsibility of the Association is to see the market for truffles is reliably supplied with high quality produce that will compete with other international suppliers. It is also our objective to grow the market in Australia, which has a recent history of enthusiastically embracing new foods.
Enjoy your truffles!
Informative References and Recipes:
- Robert Ledrole; “The Magic of the Truffle, The Favourite Recipes of Christian Etienne”, 2001, Ici La Press, ISBN 1-931605-00-9
- Elisabeth Luard; “Truffles”, 2006, Frances Lincoln Ltd, ISBN 978-0-7112-2493-3
- Francoise Dubarry and Sabine Bucquet-Grenet; The Little Book of Truffles, 2001, Flammarion, ISBN 2-08010-627-9
- Gareth Renowden; The Truffle Book 2005, Limestone Hills Publishing ISBN 0-473-10241-2
- Ian Hall, Gordon Brown and Alessandra Zambonelli; Taming the Truffle, the History, Lore, and Science of the Ultimate Mushroom. 2007, Timber Press Inc., USA., ISBN 13:978-0-88192-860-0
- Ian Hall, Gordon Bryan and James Byars; The Black Truffle, Its History, Uses and Cultivation. 2001, New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research Ltd, ISBN 0- 478-10824-9