In season: much ado about truffles
Foodies around the country will be busy making the most of the fact that we’re slap bang in the middle of truffle season right now. This mysterious underground mushroom that can command up to twice the price of gold creates the kind of culinary awe that other foods could only dream of emulating. While countries such as Italy and Spain are famed for their truffles, you might be surprised to learn that Australia is now one of the largest truffle-growing nations in the world.
“The Australian truffle industry has gone from nothing 20 years ago to being the third largest in the world,” says Nigel Wood, truffle grower and judge, and founder of Truffle Melbourne. “That’s a real indication of the success of the Australian industry.”
Wood estimates that there are perhaps 300 people or more who have planted truffles in Australia, but only around two thirds of those have ever produced truffle. This is partly because inoculation techniques – a method to introduce truffle spores to tree seedlings before planting – were not as advanced a few decades ago as they are now. But even with improved inoculation, a grower still can’t guarantee they’ll be able to produce truffles.
“Of course, while they’re difficult to grow they’re also difficult to find,” Wood says. “They’re probably the only crop I know of that humans use an animal to find.”
While you may be more familiar with truffle pigs, the best way to hunt for truffles is by using specially scent-trained truffle dogs. This is partly because, when a pig finds a truffle, they will most likely try to eat it. (Fun fact: only sows are used as truffle pigs, because to a sow, a truffle smells like a boar’s testosterone.)
Once the truffles have been found, marked and then deemed ripe enough to be harvested, they then need to be cleaned and graded.
“This is why they’re so expensive,” Wood says. “They’re difficult to grow, they’re difficult to find, and then there are heaps of labour-intensive processes required – every single truffle has to be inspected and cleaned. And then you’ve got to grade them.”
Truffles are graded by weight and shape rather than by aroma. But for consumers wanting to ensure they’re buying quality truffles, Wood advises to go by aroma and by feel.
“In these days of COVID you can’t be handling things, but in ordinary circumstances, what you do is smell the truffle and choose the aroma you like, then check the firmness, to check for ripeness. You want a nice hard truffle; you don’t want anything that’s spongy or squishy.”
Truffle newbies may also be intrigued to learn that there is such a thing as terroir when it comes to truffles, just as there is with wine.
“At my place, the soil is very sandy and flinty,” Wood says. “If I had planted Riesling grapes instead of truffle trees, I’d be producing Riesling that has a flinty note to it. And the same is true with my truffles – they’ve got a citrusy, flinty note.”
So how does an expert like Wood like to eat his truffles? For such an outstanding hero ingredient, it’s best to keep everything else as simple as possible.
“I’m a big fan of truffle scrambled eggs,” Wood says. “Another favourite is roast chicken stuffed with truffle. I’ll make the stuffing and add some truffle to it, and slice some truffle and slide that under the skin. Then I wrap it up in cling wrap, and keep it in the fridge for 24 hours, so the bird takes on a truffle aroma even before you roast it. Finally, I’ll add just a little bit of truffle in the gravy to serve.
“But truffles are pretty versatile to work with. Fats and heat are the key things that you need to produce a good truffle meal.”
Truffle Melbourne normally runs an annual festival, which this year had to be cancelled. But to keep fans happy, the team behind the festival produced Truffle Confidential, an online series featuring the best of what the festival can offer. The series is still available online for truffle devotees who want to get their fix.
“In previous years, we’ve had 40,000 people attend,” Wood says. “It’s the biggest truffle celebration weekend outside of Europe.
“People are becoming more familiar with truffles now. When I first started, and told people I was going to hold a truffle festival, they would say ‘Oh, chocolates!’ But nobody says that now. A couple of years ago even Macca’s came out with truffle burger. So that’s an indication of how much Australians’ familiarity with truffles has changed.”