It's local truffle season - here's how to sniff out the most delectable fungus of them all
Foodies and sows are salivating.
For the former, it means the strange and alluring aroma of fresh truffles – once described as a melange of used socks and sex – will find its way into a wide variety of dishes.
For the latter, it’s more a question of instinct. Truffles are the pungent fruit of a particular subterranean fungus, and simulate androstenol, a pheromone found in boars.
It’s the truffles’ way of enticing female pigs to dig them up and eat them, spreading spores via their droppings. Truffles are, in effect, nobly laying down their fungusy lives for the greater good of their kind.
It’s hard to guess how humans built up the courage to eat these rare, musky, underground mushrooms. But they did so very early in recorded history. Now some are prepared to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege.
Black truffles. Photo: Getty
Traditionally, edible truffles have been found, with the help of a pig on a leash, growing around the roots of certain trees in very specific regions of France and Italy. With high prices in an increasingly international market, it’s little surprise that other countries – including ours – began cultivating their own.
It was once considered impossible but thanks to patience, determination and science (including DNA research and fine-tuning of soil pH levels), truffle growing is now a big business. New Zealand’s “truffle groves” produced the Southern Hemisphere’s first commercial products in 1993.
Australia soon followed, with Tasmania leading the way (total production in 1999: 1 kilogram). Recent success has been so great that, ironically, it has pushed once-stratospheric prices down.
Fiona Favoro from the Australian Truffle Growers' Association tells us that ATGA members will likely produce 11 to 12 tonnes of black truffles per annum by 2020.
A selection of white truffles for sale at a European market. Photo: Getty
“Australia has very high quality, but is also very hit and miss,” says Josh Rea, of our relatively new industry. Rea runs Gourmet Life (www.gourmetlife.com.au), one of Australia’s biggest restaurant suppliers and retailers of truffles.
“Tasmania and Canberra have the best cold weather, which brings on a maturity in truffles that you won’t find elsewhere.” Only black “Périgord” truffles are produced in volume down-under.
Rea brings in the rarer and dearer white truffles mainly from Piedmont in Central Italy, but says those now coming from Romania and Bulgaria are also very good. White truffles are far stronger than black in aroma and flavour. Italian reverence for them is such they use the term trifola d’Alba Madonna, or “truffle of the white Madonna”.
Attempts to cultivate them in Europe and abroad have so far failed, keeping supply well below demand. The retail price for fresh white truffles in Australia can be $7000 to $12,000 a kilo, compared with about $2500 to $3500 for European Périgords.
White truffles. Photo: Getty
Why such high prices? “I certainly think a truffle is one of the hardest things to cultivate and grow and capture,” says Rea.
In Europe, highly experienced truffle hunters check the produce while it’s still in the ground and decide whether it is sufficiently ripe or should be left a few more days. Some believe the inconsistency of our product is because some producers are impatient to get the season underway. The use of pigs has dropped away in recent years.
Although best at tracking down truffles, pigs are also best at consuming them. Many a fossicker has seen thousands of dollars’ worth of truffle disappearing down a porcine snout. Some have reputedly lost fingers trying to retrieve the prize. Dogs have proven hardier, more obedient, and happy to give up even a perfect “truffle of the white Madonna” for a few scraps of meat.
An advantage of truffles now being produced around the world –including in China – is that there is an almost year-round supply. This allows chefs to more confidently include them on their menus. Gourmet Life airfreights weekly from Paris, Milan and Madrid during the European winter.
Rea says good Australian truffles will be ready from late June and run through to August. Many are hoping for unusually cold temperatures this winter (as has been the case in Europe), bringing with them a stellar season.
Dogs sniffing for truffles. Photo: Getty
With truffles, there is little time to waste: their aromatic gas begins to dissipate after about four days, leading to a gradual diminishment of flavour. If properly cared for, a black truffle has a shelf life of up to two weeks, though is best used fresh. White truffle is more delicate.
A week is about as much as you can store it. Rea believes a perfect truffle has flavour and aroma in equal measure. It will have more perfume early, but less flavour, so timing is everything.
One of the purest ways of consuming it is grated over fresh pasta.
Many aficionados warn against “truffle infused” products, such as oil. These may include small shavings of truffle, but the punch most likely comes from artificial flavouring such as 2,4 Dithiapentane.
“When people finally experience a real truffle,” says Rea, “they are often disappointed because it doesn’t have that same strong taste. It has a much more subtle, sophisticated flavour.”