Australians have gone mad this winter for locally-grown truffles, the mysterious subterranean fungus prized by chefs for its intense flavour and aroma.
While the local industry is still very much in its infancy, Perigord black truffles (named after the French growing region) are now grown in cooler-climate areas in most southern states. Farmers, restaurateurs and a growing band of enthusiasts are increasingly celebrating the annual mid-winter harvest with a range of unique events.
One of Tasmania's top restaurants, Stillwater in Launceston, this year staged a Truffle and Pinot Weekender between July 22 and 24, building on the annual truffle dinner it has been running for several years.
"With about 80 per cent of participants in the weekend coming from interstate, it has really taken off," says Stillwater owner Kim Seagram. "Pinot noir and truffles is one of those marriages that is made in heaven. The earthy forest floor notes in both, the bright red fruit of the pinot and the ethereal truffle aroma are just made for each other."
The Australian industry is finally producing truffles in large enough quantities that they can now be more widely enjoyed by the general public. It certainly wasn't always so. Australian truffieres (truffle farms) have had mixed fortunes in attempting to commercialise their efforts, since the first successful harvest in Tasmania in 1999.
They're not the cheapest ingredient going around, but they certainly don't require you to take out a personal loan just to go and buy them.Rodney Dunn
The truffle shuffle
There are now more than 160 commercial growers in Australia, but not all are actually producing truffles, the Australian Truffle Growers Association says. "Due to many variables, some growers have invested substantial money and time into ventures that are only producing small quantities of truffle – while others are enjoying bountiful harvests and profits," it says.
Truffles grow on the roots of host trees, most commonly oak or hazelnut. But little is known about what causes the rare and delicate fungi to actually bear fruit. West Australian growers now produce the largest volume, but quality examples come from all the main regions, according to Rodney Dunn of Tasmanian cooking school, The Agrarian Kitchen.
"I've had great truffles from WA, I've had great truffles from Tassie and I've had great truffles from Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT," he says.
Cooking up a treat
Such is Dunn's truffle obsession that after years of teaching people how to cook with them, he has just published The Truffle Cookbook, the first of its kind featuring more than 60 different truffle recipes.
He says amateur chefs should not be deterred by the eye-watering prices commonly quoted for truffles, of up to $2000 per kilogram. "Where people quote the price in kilos, I think it is ridiculous, simply because a kilo of truffles would give you truffles to feed, you know, 30 people," he says.
"In much more realistic terms, you're looking at anywhere between a $1.50 and $2 a gram. In a dish, you might use five or six grams per person of truffle. So they're not the cheapest ingredient going around, but they certainly don't require you to take out a personal loan just to go and buy them."
To get bang for your buck, Dunn advocates storing your truffles for two or three days in a container along with some eggs. The pungent truffle flavour even permeates their shells, infusing them with truffle. "It's amazing the flavour that you get out of the egg," he says.
Not so grate
Peter Marshall, of Terra Preta Truffles in Braidwood, New South Wales, says the biggest mistake that people make when cooking with truffles is simply grating them over their pasta or eggs. "It doesn't work. The flavour is actually in these tiny little packages and you've got to break the cell wall of the package to get the flavour compounds out. You need a little bit of lactic acid which means good quality butter, particularly cultured butter," he says.
As such, Marshall says making a truffle butter is the simplest way for amateurs to experiment with the rare fungus. "That'll lift anything. As long as you keep it in the freezer wrapped up in a plastic log, you can use it for about three months," he says.
Marshall recommends that truffles be treated similarly to a spice or flavour enhancer. "Fifty dollars will really lift a dinner for four to six people. Heck, that's the price of a reasonable bottle of wine."
Sniff them out
There's still time to indulge in Australian truffles this winter, but you'd better move quickly. If you can't make it to a truffle-growing region, you can buy online or visit the Sydney and Melbourne pop-ups of retailer Madame Truffles, co-founded by Bernadette Jenner.
Jenner says she loves using truffles to "make a simple meal really decadent", such as a cheese toastie. "Get yourself some really good quality sourdough bread and lather it with really good quality butter. Put some gruyere cheese on then shave some truffle in the middle and toast it up. That is beautiful!" she says.
Madame Truffles' Sydney store closes on August 7, while the Melbourne store runs until the end of August.
James Atkinson visited Tasmania with assistance from Tourism Tasmania.