Buried pleasure

A trove of locally grown truffles awaits home cooks, writes Justine Costigan.

IN A 1.6-hectare paddock a few kilometres outside Trentham, truffle farmer Chris Macquet is showing would-be truffle growers how to plant an oak with roots that have been infected with truffle spores. In three to five years, fingers crossed, these spores will have grown into aromatic little balls that can be dug up and eaten.

The development of the Australian truffle industry has been long, slow and painful, with many a truffle grower waiting years for truffles that never appear. But for Macquet, his French background meant attempting to produce truffles in Australia was a must. Now he has his own trufferie, supplies inoculated trees and is helping other growers establish their own truffle farms.

Ten years after the first Australian truffles were produced in Tasmania, Australia now has a fledgling industry, with growers in New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria, Canberra and Tasmania. Victoria is growing the world's four main truffle varieties - two winter and two summer varieties, a black and white truffle for each season.

So far, marketing has been focused on the restaurant industry but now there's a push to get truffles into the kitchens of home cooks throughout the country. The education process has been slow. The Victorian Truffles Festival, held this month in Trentham, is just one of the ways truffle growers are trying to engage fine-food enthusiasts with their product.

At a recent truffle tasting and workshop, Macquet, the owner of Victoria's Truffleberry Farms and founder of the Victorian Truffles Festival, sliced tiny, wafer-thin portions of black truffle and asked each participant to place one on their tongue then hold it in their mouths without swallowing until their body temperature helped release the truffle aroma. After about 40 seconds, the papery sliver melted into a funky, earthy mouth explosion, and the expressions of the small group of tasters as the flavour hit them was priceless.

It's a mild smoky taste that evolves into the flavour hit of an old sweaty sock; there's no way to make this experience sound good. Except it is. Absolutely, palate-corrupting, tantalisingly good. You just want more and more.

Rich, warm and compost-like, truffles have the same ability to thrill as a very ripe washed-rind cheese. Close up, their smell can be intense, but in small quantities a truffle is undeniably seductive.

Truffles respond best to warmth but not to vigorous cooking. The Australian Truffle Cookbook recommends truffles be served with foods between 60C to 80C.

Consisting of about 83 per cent water, heat a truffle above 90 degrees and it will begin to evaporate. That's why most recipes call for truffles to be added at the end of cooking. Recipes that use truffles at the start of the cooking process usually have some built-in protection for the fungi, such as placing truffle slices under the skin of a chicken, covering them with pastry or using them as part of a stuffing.

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Most recipe books recommend serving truffles with mild-flavoured foods. Eggs, potato, rice, pasta and cheese are classic complements. The key is not to overdo it.

''More is not always better,'' says Philippe Mouchel, who uses Australian truffles at his restaurant, PM24, as they come into season.

Although truffles are often associated with rich or creamy dishes, Mouchel says heavy cream can sometimes overpower them. He often uses them in a delicate meat jus, grated over carpaccio or sauteed vegetables and with fish.

Paul Bocuse's truffle soup, created for the Elysee Palace dinner in 1975 to celebrate his Legion d'Honneur, combines black truffle, foie gras, chicken and vegetables with consomme served in a bowl covered with a high layer of puff pastry. Mouchel still occasionally makes the signature dish at PM24. ''You break the pastry and then you get the amazing truffle aroma,'' he says.

The perceived (and actual) cost of truffles has always worked against their successful move out of the confined world of fine-dining restaurants and into the home pantry. Yes, if you buy it by the kilo you might not be able to pay this month's mortgage, but even one gram of shaved truffle is enough to transform creamy scrambled eggs into something special. At between $1.50 and $3 a gram, that's a small price to pay for one of life's great culinary luxuries. Think of using it the way you do saffron - you only need a pinch.

Although not particularly rare (they're now grown all over the world), truffles are seasonal and, when fresh, have a short life span. Attempts to create a longer-lasting truffle flavour have been mixed. Salt, oil, mustard, brine, honey and even vodka are some of the ways people have attempted to capture and preserve truffle's unique flavour.

Sadly, many of these products might not actually contain any truffle at all. ''Truffle aroma'', an ingredient found in many truffle products, is a synthetic flavour. Macquet describes it as the ''smell of burnt garlic'' and if you compare an oil made with truffle aroma with Macquet's version, made with Kyneton extra-virgin olive oil infused with local fresh truffles, there's no comparison. As it's the only real truffle oil in Australia and it's made in limited quantities, it's unlikely many chefs in Australia are using the real thing.

Usually spread over four months, this year's Australian truffle harvest has been concentrated into six weeks, thanks to unseasonable weather conditions. By mid-August, the winter season might be over.

Despite the difficulties of establishing a successful trufferie in Australia, Macquet has great hopes for the industry.

''It's a labour of love,'' he says. ''Truffles are a very sensitive fungi but if you create the right conditions, they will grow.''

Fragrant finds

TRUFFLES sourced from Western Australia as well as Victoria and Tasmania are available online. See nutrimeasure.com/Fresh-Truffle.html. Minimum purchase is one gram but a standard postage fee applies to all orders.

■Also try the Madame Truffles pop-up shop, 12-18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne (Thursday-Sunday, 10am-6pm, until the last weekend of July).

■Tamar Valley truffles from Tasmania are available at The Vegetable Connection, 255 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.

■West Australian Manjimup truffles are also available online (see wineandtruffle.com.au), at Simon Johnson stores and at The Mushroom Man at Prahran Market.

■Download a free copy of the Australian Truffle Cookbook. See victrufflesfestival.com.au.

■Philippe Mouchel's PM24 hosts a truffle dinner on August 3. It costs $280 a person, including matched wines. For details, phone 9207 7424.

This article Buried pleasure was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.