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Yes, in fact native Australian truffles are an important part of our forest ecology, essential to healthy growth. And there are thousands of varieties and sizes usually buried in the leafy litter on the ground in our bush. But they’re almost inedible, except to our native animals and birds, so we concentrate on an introduced species from Europe called tuber melanosporum the black or Perigord truffle.
In Europe the truffles most prized for their flavour are the black Perigord truffle Tuber melanosporum, and the highly priced large white truffle Tuber magnatum. Just a notch or two down is one that grows in summer called (of course) the Summer Truffle Tuber aestivum. There’s also a smaller white truffle Tuber borchii and a less prized black variety Tuber maculatum. And then there's a 'rogue' that came mixed with imported innoculum called tuber brumale, some plantations established before we could DNA certify our seedlings will have to sell brumale. In Asia, there’s a truffle that looks very similar to the black Perigord truffle we grow, Tuber indicum (or T. chinensis) and it is banned from importation into Australia, but in Europe it finds its way into unscrupulous dealers baskets to ‘bulk out’ the regular black truffle. It's cheaper has a lot less smell and flavour. There are experiments underway to grow white truffles in Australia but other than the small 'bianchetto' variety we have not been able to grow the large white T. magnatum.
Truffles are a form of fungi like a mushroom that grows underground. They grow in the soil attached by very fine hair-like ‘mycelium’ to the roots of a host tree. They draw sugars from the tree and in return they give back nutrients from the soil that thelarger tree roots can't access. In Australia, truffle spores are added to the roots of oak and hazelnut trees as seedlings, then sold as ‘infected’ tube grown plants. Planted out in plantations called by the French name truffières, they are planted far enough apart so that as the tree leaves grow, they won’t stop the sun from reaching the ground and the new growing truffles. A Mediteranean climate is ideal with warm summers, good rain and winter cold (frost is an advantage to maturity). It can take years before signs of the first truffles appear, some growers have found them after three or four years, but they become more productive as the trees age. Pruning, weeding and irrigation are the only ongoing tasks, but initial preparation of the soils is important. Truffles need very alkaline soil which means adding large quantities of lime. The best way to learn about truffle growing is to join the association, attend a workshop and talk to the growers as they explain how their truffiere works.
Yes, that’s the hard part. Even though there are signs of underground truffle (they kill off the grass above, in what’s called a brulee) they rarely push up through the soil so that you can see them. But since they have a distictive aroma, sensitive animals like dogs and pigs can sniff out where they are. In Australia pigs are rarely used, because of their size and desire to eat the truffle. Dogs can be taught to just find where the truffle is underground and wait for a treat instead. There are experiments with mechanical sensor 'noses', but the speed that a dog can search a paddock is hard to match.
If you can train the dog to detect the aroma of truffles in small amounts (usually done with frozen truffle or high qualty truffle 'aroma'), and their nature means they are willing to work for hours at a time and not get bored, any dog can be a truffle dog. The training also involves teaching the dog to scratch where the truffle is, or just pointing with a paw and they are given a treat when it is uncovered. A lot of the training is building a relationship with their handler so that they know their dog is really sure there is something there (and don’t just want a treat). It can take a few years to fully train a dog because the truffle season is short, just a few months for them to get practice. There are books on training your dog, and almost any breed seems suitable.
Unfortunately, by the time they’re grown trees, it’s too hard to dig them up and infect the roots with the truffle. That’s why one or two year old seedlings are planted out. Some people have tried planting in a tub, but no results are in yet, and since the idea is to grow good healthy spreading roots a tub probably won’t work. Given the variable nature of infected seedlings even if certified, we suggest getting at least a few trees if you’re experimenting in your back yard. Remember that oak trees grow very big though!
Truffles are a natural glutamate, a flavour enhancer like garlic. Added to almost any dish, savoury or sweet, they will improve the depth of flavour. Over-cooking however destroys the delicate smell, so the recommended approach to using truffles for the first time is to shave or grate them onto the dish just before serving. Warm dishes like pasta, mashed potato, risottos increase the release of the aroma. The best way to learn about cooking with truffles is to attend one of our cooking school classes . There are recipes on the site to help you as well.
Unlike real truffles, the aroma of truffle oil is not born in the earth. Most commercial truffle oils are concocted by mixing olive oil with one or more chemical compounds like 2,4-dithiapentane (the most prominent of the hundreds of aromatic molecules that make truffles so exciting) that have been created in a laboratory; their one-dimensional flavor is also changing common understanding of how a truffle should taste. NYTimes They usually add a flavourless dried bit of truffle for appearance so they can say contains ‘real truffle’. Check the labels and if it says 'contains truffle aroma', it’s synthetic. You can make real truffle oil by adding fresh truffle to a light oil, but because it's still 'alive' it will form moulds and even botulism after a few months in a refrigerator.
There are a growing number of places that sell truffles on-line and air freight or Express Post your truffle within a foam box. They using wrapped freezer blocks which keeps them fresh for a couple of days. Then you put them in your refrigerator (not freezer) where, if you change the wrapping paper each day, they'll keep well for a week or so and then gradually they lose their flavour.
The Truffle Festivals each year have one or more events where samples of truffle dishes are free or cheap for the tasting, many also have cooking demonstrations. The best way to get a full tasting truffle dish is of course at one of our restaurants and cafes who understand how to use truffles. There are lots of options to suit all budgets, from a breakfast to a multi-course degustation. At the end of many of our regional seasonal truffle hunts they also have a tasting, like a cup of soup with shaved or grated truffles, or cheese with truffle inside.
If you’ve only got a tin of sardines on your shelf, try it! However start with simple dishes like scrambled eggs, risottos, mashed potatoes or celeriac which all seem to let the flavour shine through. One rule that helps is that they love fats. Cream and butter absorb the flavours for example.
We find truffles an exciting addition to Australia's culinary produce. Everyone is still learning how best to grow them, and how to eat them. We don’t have the centuries of ‘truffle culture’ like they do in Europe where they've grown wild for thousands of years. There everyone knows their seasonal nature and where they grow (in winter, mostly in Mediteranean areas , but there are also summer varieties in some places). They know which restaurants are likely to have them on their menu, if their dishes are special or not. And they have their favourite ways of enjoying them at home. They know which of their neighbours is likely to be out with their dogs hunting, and how much they can buy them for from him or her ( in Italy it could be one of the Nanna’s hunting truffle with the family dog for extra cash income). Things are different here where the truffles are all farmed. We still don’t know how much the infected tree roots will yield and for how long. You need the dogs to hunt them, but at least they’re in a paddock not in a forest. For us that’s part of the wonder of these magic fungi and why enjoying them each year is such a special event. So these festivals dedicated to truffles are events that have started the process of public truffle education. When their season finishes it always seems like “I should have had just one more truffle dish, attended one more big dinner to say ‘goodbye’”. If your Festival can share that excitement with you, it will have served its purpose well.