A truffle is the highly aromatic, subterranean, fruit of a fungi growing on the roots of specific host trees.
Of all ingredients used in the culinary world, none share the unique attributes, mystique, history, and folklore of French Black and Italian White truffles.
Historical research into the world of truffle, both factual and anecdotal, makes for nothing less than fascinating and entertaining reading.
The truffle, deemed so valuable and yet so scarce for so long, has forged a legend of celebration, festivity and skulduggery due to its high value. In a fascinating history, stories of poaching, truffle dog abduction, murder and black-market activity over many centuries in its native Europe abound.
The earliest written reference to truffles is noted in a publication dated 77 – 79 AD. From ancient Greece, through to the Roman Empire and beyond, truffles were revered by rulers as an aphrodisiac of great power.
In Medieval times, collection and consumption of truffle was largely prohibited, and deemed unsavoury by the ruling religious orders of the time. Truffles re-emerged as a highly prized delicacy of the aristocracy in the era of the Renaissance in France and Italy.
Truffles ‘Black and White'
A truffle is the highly aromatic, subterranean, fruit of a fungi growing on the roots of specific host trees. There are hundreds of varieties of truffle that exist in almost all continents, yet only a handful have any real significance in the culinary world.
Two varieties of truffle stand head and shoulders above all others in value and interest; these are the French Black and Italian White truffle.
Despite several plantings worldwide, to this date the Italian White has not been successfully grown in cultivation and is still mainly harvested from the natural forests of Italy, and in small pockets of the southeast France and Croatia.
It is therefore mainly the French Black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, often referred to as the ‘Black Diamond of The Kitchen’ that has been planted in cultivated truffières in Europe, Australia and in a range of locations around the globe.
The harvest season in Australia varies among regions, generally commencing mid-June and lasting for 8-9 weeks.
How Many Types of Truffles are There?
There are over two hundred species of truffle.
Despite this, only a handful are highly prized in culinary circles.
Common names for the best known, are:
- the French black or Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum),
- the Italian white or Piedmont truffle (Tuber magnatum),
- the Summer truffle (Tuber aestivum), and
- Bianchetto (Tuber borchii).
Aroma and Taste of Black Truffles
Most people describe the aroma and taste of black truffle quite differently. This is not surprising, giving our variable olfactory senses and the nuances that occur due to different growing environments. Each truffle species also has its own unique aromatic and flavour qualities.
What is universally agreed, however, is that the fragrance is like nothing else on earth.
Adjectives often used to describe the aroma of black truffle include breath-taking, intoxicating, heavy, musky, earthy, and smouldering. The flavour has hints of forest floor, garlic, parmesan, violets, vanilla, and chocolate… What will you say?
Australian Truffles vs European Truffles
Australian truffles are the same species as those grown in Europe. The truffles we produce are used by many international chefs and gourmet food distributors who are extremely impressed with the quality.
Like wine varietals, the aroma and flavour of truffles have regional nuances. This is due to climate, temperature and variable bacterial communities in soil that assist the fungi with aromatic development.
Truffles vary greatly in size and weight, commonly ranging between 20 and 150 grams. They do grow much larger, occasionally up to a kilogram or more.
The largest recorded black truffle to date was 1511 grams, found in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, during the 2016 harvest.
Capturing the imagination of all is the method by which truffles are found and harvested. The truffle’s complete lifecycle occurs underground and remarkably, nature has given it the powerful aromatics that we revere, quite simply for detection and natural distribution by animals.
Centuries ago wild boar were observed in natural oak forests frantically excavating truffle with their snouts, and so for many years thereafter pigs were used as markers of where to find the precious truffle.
In the late 1800’s hunters began to train dogs to find truffle and for obvious reasons they were seen as a more effective, portable and manageable resource for this work.
Various breeds of dog are successfully trained and used in the truffle hunt and harvest including but not limited to, Spaniels, Labradors, Kelpies, Koolies and the Italian Lagotto.
The necessary characteristics for success include intelligence, temperament, liveliness, work ethic and ability to stay focused. Even with all these boxes ticked there are no guarantees however, with only a small percentage of dogs trained making good truffle dogs.
Training takes time and pups may start as early as 8 to 12 weeks old being introduced to the truffle scent in a series of regular playful games.
Gradually the truffle infused object is hidden and the dog learns to search for its prize, with good results always rewarded with a small snack or possibly a favourite toy and much verbal praise.
Eventually the decoy is buried in a simulated harvest situation and the dog has to search and scent to locate it. A good truffle dog may take a year or two to fully develop its skills.
How Are Truffles Grown?
Most plant species have, over time, established symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationships with mycorrhizal fungi.
The name “mycorrhiza” means “fungus root”. The fungi live in and around the roots of over 90% of the earth’s plant species, effectively operating as a secondary root system.
The fungal hyphae extend a long way out into the soil, extracting mineral elements and water for their host plant, which in turn, provides the fungus with the sugars produced in the process of photosynthesis.
The truffle is the fruiting body formed when the fungal species is ready to reproduce. The ripe truffle carries millions of fertile spores, that may germinate when it breaks down in the soil.
Truffles begin to mature in early winter, when aromas form, in readiness for discovery. They reach full maturity during the winter months.
Truffles may be found from just below (or sometimes breaking) the surface, to approximately twenty centimetres deep depending on soil structure.
Can I Grow Truffles?
Anyone can learn to grow truffles, but not everyone can provide them with the environment they need to thrive in.
Learning about the specialised conditions required, and the workings of the truffle industry itself is the first step towards becoming a truffle farmer.
Why Do Truffles Seem so Expensive?
The first thing to say is, that a little truffle goes a long way!
It only takes a few grams of ripe truffle to influence and create a magnificent dish. Putting it into perspective, an exquisite seasonal delight may only cost $10 – $15 per plate, when cooking at home. It just sounds expensive when people talk in pounds or kilos.
It is true however that truffles may be viewed as ‘relatively’ expensive when compared to other ingredients, for a range of reasons including:
- They are challenging to grow.
- Need specific soil, climate, and environmental factors.
- Farms establishment requires substantial capital investment.
- Take many years to reach commercial yields.
- Require specialised inoculated host trees.
- Labour and resource intensive to harvest.
- Have a relatively short shelf life.
- Transported in cold chain packaging.
Where Can I Buy Truffles?
Depending on your proximity to a truffle farm, you may be able to purchase direct from the grower.
Other options include buying online, either from a grower or gourmet food distributor, or seeking out growers at farmer’s markets and seasonal festivals.
High end food retailers may also stock fresh truffle, during the winter harvest season.
How Do I Know the Truffle Is of Good Quality?
Firstly, we suggest that you do not purchase fresh truffle before mid-June.
Truffles are only just beginning to truly ripen at this stage. Buying truffle before mid-June will most likely result in a disappointing experience. When buying from a local source it’s also important to hold the truffle first to ensure it is firm to touch.
It should have only the slightest give when lightly squeezed and the aroma should be robust and pleasant.
If the truffle feels spongy or the aroma is unpleasant, it is most likely over ripe and it should be avoided at all costs.
There should also be a slight nick exposing the interior of the truffle.
The truffle should be very dark inside with white crazed veins visible.
What Is the Best Way to Store Truffles?
Fresh truffles are best stored in a sealed glass jar in the crisper area of the fridge.
It is important to wrap them in absorbent paper first and change this daily until used.
How Do You Eat Truffles?
Truffles are essentially a natural aroma and flavour enhancer.
When added to certain dishes, generally savoury, however sometimes sweet, truffles greatly improve the depth of flavour.
A common approach to using truffles is to shave or grate them onto the dish just prior to serving.
This is fine, however, certain truffles that are more robust, such as the French Black, may also be warmed through sauces, and dishes like pasta, mashed potato, and risottos, greatly increasing the release and depth of aroma.
Can Truffle Be Used Over a Few Days?
Certainly… when you have used enough truffle for the dish you are creating, immediately wrap it in absorbent paper and return it to the sealed jar in the fridge.
Are Truffles Good for You?
French Black truffles contain around 72% water, 7.6% fibre, very little vegetable fat and are rich in quality proteins.
They also contain many minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and various other organic substances.
So yes… truffles are good for you!
Editorial Contribution: Noel Fitzpatrick, ATGA