It was 2010. I was in the Otways, a couple of hours west of Melbourne, writing a story about chef George Biron and his restaurant Sunnybrae (it’s now Brae, run by chef Dan Hunter). In walked truffle farmer Steve Earl with a gelati tin. We stood around the kitchen bench and he opened the tin. It was full of truffles. We were silent. We inhaled. The aroma was heady, earthy, somehow full of soil and sky at the same time. The knobbly truffles were plump and black, gently glistening, not pretty but somehow promising. I felt a wave wash over me: I was infused with excitement, fogged with the aroma, almost intoxicated. I had to grip the bench to stop from swooning. Truffles! They are incredible.
What is it about truffles? This subterranean fungus fruit has been treasured since antiquity, as much for its mystery as its aroma and flavour. The mystery lies largely in its cultivation – truffles cannot be planted like beans or cabbages and there is no truffle seed. All you can do is create the conditions that truffles like and keep your fingers crossed.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that French truffle fans started to work out how to cultivate truffles by creating promising environments: that is, oak trees (or sometimes beech, birch or hazel), rocky, well-drained soil and hot weather. To grow truffles, the tree roots and branching mycelium of the fungus must slowly create mycorrhizae, or symbiotic relationships. The fungi help the tree roots absorb water and nutrients, while the tree delivers the carbohydrates that develop from photosynthesis. It’s a beautiful and complex relationship. Most truffles now come from purpose-built groves but they can also be found in the wild, given the right conditions.
Once truffles grow, the next trick is to find them. This can only be done via scenting them out and nosing them out from the leaf litter and dirt at the base of trees. Pigs and dogs can both be used to find truffles. Female pigs are attracted to the aroma because it’s similar to a sex pheremone found in the saliva of boars. The only trouble with using pigs is that they want to eat any truffles they find and they’ll fight you for them! Ask an old pig-owning truffle farmer to show you his hands and he’s very likely missing the tip of a finger. Also, pigs’ snouts can disrupt the fragile mycelium, which is another reason dogs are more popular these days. They don’t want to eat the truffle, they just want the treat you’ll give them for finding it.
Given the precarious difficulty of cultivating and harvesting truffles, they are notoriously expensive. Think around A$2.50 a gram, or around A$50 for a golf-ball-sized whole truffle. Madame Truffles and Friend & Burrell offer online delivery around Australia; you can also buy truffles at produce markets and farmers’ markets. Swoop quickly during their winter season!
Join me on some of my other truffle adventures:
I’ve got quite a few truffle recipes in my books and on my website.
White Bean Soup with Truffle from Guy Grossi, In the Mix: Great Thermomix Recipes, page 59.
Crab and Prawn Polenta from Matt Wilkinson, In the Mix: Great Thermomix Recipes, page 99. This recipe uses truffle oil, which is infused with truffle. It must be used sparingly but is a more affordable way to bring an exotic truffly note to your dishes.
Trufa Morcillosa from Elena Arzak, In the Mix 2: More Great Thermomix Recipes, page 43.
Cauliflower and Truffle Soup from Peter Gilmore, In the Mix 2: More Great Thermomix Recipes, page 58.
Parmesan Custard with Truffled Asparagus from Brent Savage, In the Mix 2: More Great Thermomix Recipes, page 213.
Mushroom Cappuccino from Entertaining, page 90 and right here. This recipe uses truffle oil but I’ve served it recently with grated fresh truffle over the top and it is amazing. Mushroom Cappuccino features in the Party menu of my Thermomix book and chip, Entertaining with Dani Valent.
Barolo-Braised Beef with Polenta Cremoso from Joseph Vargetto, video on the site.
Leek, Potato and Truffle Soup, as seen in my Truffle Soup Adventure.
Bitter Greens Salad with Truffle Vinaigrette – delicious with any of the above truffle dishes.
I hope you enjoy any truffle magic that comes your way.