Rich, magnificent and a little bit fancy are all things that come to mind when truffles are on the menu. But do we know anything about them, really? Long-time favourites of fine dining restaurants, truffles are now popping up on cafe menus too, having entire festivals thrown in their honour — they've even been added to beer, for goodness sake.
In order to dispel the air of mystery surrounding truffles (and just so we can stop pretending we know what we're talking about), we've called upon truffle aficionado Bernadette Jenner from Madame Truffles to set us straight about where to find them, how to eat them, and what makes them so magical.
What are truffles?
Truffles are a type of fungi, and are part of the genus tuber. While there are many different types of truffles, only a few are edible; the white truffle (tuber magnatum) and the black Perigord truffle (tuber melanosporum) are the most highly sought after. Truffles range in size from as small as a marble to as big as your fist and retail for around $2,500 per kilogram. They're found underground surrounding the roots of a host tree, which is often either oak or hazelnut. Currently only the black Perigord truffles are harvested in Australia.
Originally pigs were used to sniff out truffles; however, most farmers use dogs these days, as pigs were notorious for eating their discoveries. "Fighting a pig for a truffle is probably not worth your life," says Jenner, and we believe her. Interestingly, the truffle has a pheromone in it that smells like a male boar, so the female pigs are actually searching for a mate, rather than a fine-dining delicacy. "In pig world it's actually the smell of the male that speaks to its dominance. It's not about how pretty it is or how much money it earns; the better smelling the pig, the higher up in the pecking order he is." Weirdly enough, the pheromones in male pigs are actually similar to that found in male humans. Figure that one out.
Where do they come from?
Australia is actually the fourth largest black truffle producer in the world, following closely behind Italy, France and Spain. Black truffles can be found all over the country. So where can you get the best ones? "As a general rule, there's a great truffiere in Pemberton, WA," explains Jenner. "Truffles from Braidwood in NSW are smoky and gorgeous, and you can also get good truffles from Tassie."
So how do our truffles compare? Jenner says that Australian truffles are strong competitors in relation to their European counterparts. "About 95 percent of the truffles from WA are exported to Italy and America, and they fill up the Michelin star restaurants."
When are truffles in season?
In Australia, peak truffle season is from the end of May through to the end of August. One great thing about truffles is their unpredictability and the variety you can have from one harvest, as Jenner explains. "Each harvest is different and even truffles from the same tree can taste and smell different."
This is the fourth year Jenner has run her pop-up shop Madame Truffles during the peak season, and she has noticed a definite increase in interest in truffles. Bernie puts this down to two reasons: "The truffieres know much more about what they're doing so not only are they producing more truffles, but the quality is great." The second reason comes down to us: we're craving something new and special. "People are feeling more confident and adventurous with food," she says.
How do you cook with truffles?
The possibilities here are nearly endless. Truffles love heat, which make them lovely additions to pasta or risotto, where you can either mix it in while cooking, or shave some on top to add depth to your meal. Jenner's hot tip is to keep things simple. "The truffle is the diamond," she explains. "I love a decadent breakfast, so I love putting heaps of the truffle in scrambled eggs and pop a little bit on top when I serve it." A little bit goes a long way with truffles, and it’s important not to overcook as that can decrease their flavour.
Where can you get them?
Truffles are purchased by weight and are most often ordered online through various truffieres around Australia. Part of the thrill of buying truffles is inspecting them yourself, and most importantly, smelling them. That's what makes going to Madame Truffles such an experience. "The truffles that you buy here, you would have smelled them, we don’t sell it to you without smelling it first," explains Jenner. As well as buying truffles whole you can also by them as products such as truffle pasta, truffle butter, truffle ice cream, and Madame Truffles is even making truffle Monte Carlos for the adventurous sweet tooth.
Where to enjoy truffles in Sydney
Sydney is home to a raging truffle scene, not just limited to restaurants with French words splattered around the menu and a wine selection that would cost more than the average weekly rent. Devon cafe in Surry Hills is known for their inexpensive approach to the truffle — the ultimate toastie with egg, gruyere, mushroom and truffle has become a locals' favourite in winter months. Bishop Sessa in Surry Hills takes pride in their truffle offerings (so much so that once a year in June they organise an all-truffle menu), while Mr Wong in the CBD puts an intriguing Asian twist on the humble truffle with black truffle and wild mushroom dumplings and poached pork, prawn and black truffle dumplings (all under $15!).
Want to play chef? You can take home some of that sweet, sweet fungus-y goodness from food markets like Pyrmont Growers Market (but remember that truffles are seasonally dependent). If you are searching for truffles all year round, grocery Gourmet Life in Darling Point imports them from Europe.
By Hannah Valmadre with Natalie Freeland. Feature image courtesy of ulterior epicure via photopin and ultimate truffle sandwich via @nutellasum. Other images thanks to Madame Truffles.