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A lesson in truffles

Illustration by Cara Diffey

As truffle season draws near, we call on "Truffle Hound" Sara Hinchey to share knowledge about this decadent edible fungus.

A lesson in truffles

Can you give us the brief history of how truffles originated?

Subterranean mushrooms – black perigord truffles – were resurrected after a long period of abstinence, by Renaissance nobles who believed them to have aphrodisiac qualities.

Black and white truffles grow in the wild in Europe where there are many different species.  The most popular (and of the highest quality) are the black perigord truffle (tuber melanosporum) and the Italian white truffle (tuber magnatum pico).

Because they are mushrooms, truffles multiply when their spores are distributed, and there is a fair bet that you will find them again in the same spot as they were located in the past.  For that reason, truffle hunting in the wild in Europe is a secretive business, with the location of the truffles closely guarded.

How do they grow?

In Australia and New Zealand there are no “wild” truffles, only black truffles which are grown in “trufferies” or truffle orchards.  The truffles grow on the roots of certain oak trees and hazelnut trees, the roots of which have been inoculated with truffle spore before they are planted.  Owners of trufferies map the location of where each truffle is found from year to year, to ensure that each years “hunt” is as successful as possible.

To date, no one has successfully grown white truffle in either Australia or New Zealand (but they’re trying!)

What is the biggest misconception about truffles, and synthetic truffle oils etc in the marketplace today?

There’s a myth that Europe is the only source of high quality truffles. It’s not true – and there is now a large market in Europe for Australian black truffles because of their high quality. They are not hard to store!  Kept in a container of rice they remain in great condition for two weeks (giving the rice a delicious truffle aroma – risotto anyone?).  Longer is fine – but they lose a bit of intensity.

Too expensive?  If you ate them like apples, yes, but you don’t.  A truffle is shaved or chopped finely to add something special and unique.  You don’t buy in kilos – you buy in grams.

Too tricky to cook with?  Not if you can handle potatoes, rice, pasta or butter.  Truffles convert pedestrian foods to showstoppers (especially when allowed to gently warm) such as when finely chopped truffle is stirred through mashed potato.

Nearly every truffle oil sold contains synthetic truffle aroma.  There is nothing wrong with that – but better that buyers know that when they make the decision to buy the product.

We’ve seen a huge growth in the popularity and demand of truffles locally (both in Australia and New Zealand).  Is this also reflected in the improving quality of local truffles?

We are incredibly lucky in Australia – truffles grown here and in New Zealand have always been of exceptional quality and this has been noticed overseas.  An upside of our relatively young truffle market is that our local markets, where you can find truffles,  do not have inferior truffles competing with the high grade product, so consumers can have complete confidence that what they are buying is the real deal: tuber melanasporum.  If you live near a trufferie, then hopefully they participate in a local farmers market and you can support an emerging Australian industry close to home.

As owners of trufferies develop their expertise, they are learning to pick truffles at the best times – the riper they are the better their quality.  Which is great for us – we get to try something incredible grown locally, picked fresh and of exceptional quality.

What is the difference between a black and a white truffle?

There are four key differences between black and white truffles – it’s not limited to the taste or aroma.

1. White truffles are usually much larger than black truffles.
2. White truffles are an off-white or cream colour, while black truffles are dark brown or black in appearance.
3. White truffles have a highly perfumed, somewhat heady or intoxicating aroma, similar to the aroma of truffle oil.  Black truffles smell similar, but far less pungent and more earthy.  Neither has a particular “taste”, only an aroma which is released when the truffle is exposed to air or warmed a little.
4. White truffles are about four times as expensive as black ones – because they are rare – only found in the wild, in Europe.

Truffles, while predominantly used in savoury cuisine, are making their way into sweets too. Why do they work so well in desserts?

Truffles in desserts are tricky, because they are often overwhelmed by the sugar or chocolate found in many desserts. My favourite truffle dessert is poached pear served in light sugar syrup, with fresh truffle shaved over the warm pear like autumn “leaves”, or warm truffled tarte tatin (apple or pear).  In both dishes, the acid in the fruit balances the sweetness of the dish nicely, and in the tarte tatin, the butter throughout carries the truffle “aroma” into the dish.

Use double cream rather than ice cream as an accompaniment to the dish, as ice cream can be too sweet and will overwhelm the delicate truffle aroma.

Can you please share some quick tips for cooking with truffles?

The optimum way to use truffles in cooking, is to make them the “star” of the show. That generally means using neutral foods (which we’re all used to using) to showcase the truffle flavour – potatoes, rice, eggs, pasta, butter or white cheeses.

The truffle aroma is heightened when truffle pieces are warmed – so adding truffle shavings as a garnish to a hot dish such as pasta, will provide an immediate infusion of truffle aroma as the plate is served.

Due to their high water content, when truffles that are heated, they rapidly lose their aroma, taste and texture.  The trick is to never cook with truffles in temperatures higher than 80°C, and remembering that , direct heat, rapidly destroys the truffle aroma.

Truffles should be handled the way you might  use a delicate herb like fresh coriander – it is best added either at the very end of the cooking process, or as a garnish when a dish is being served.

Australian truffles only ripen in Winter -there is a very short window when they are available (June-August), with the peak ripeness in July/early August.

She also said because of how they are grown they can’t be cultivated (say in a hot house or anything) – so you have to get them while they are in season, and when they smell ripe, they are good.

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