Recipe | August 17, 2020
Photo by Sarah Hewer
Truffles have been treasured since antiquity, as much for their mystery as their culinary qualities. A subterranean fungus that comes in either robust black or more delicate white, the aroma is heady, almost intoxicating, and the flavour is deeply earthy. The mystery of truffles lies largely in the way they grow – truffles can’t be planted like potatoes or carrots and a harvest is never guaranteed. Because supply is unreliable and they’re tricky to find, truffles are famously expensive, so it’s lucky that a little goes a long way.
Truffles are an underground fungus fruit that grows in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. The roots and the branching mycelium of the fungus slowly create symbiotic connections called mycorrhizae. The fungi help the tree roots absorb water and nutrients, while the tree sends the truffles carbohydrates they produce via photosynthesis. It’s a beautiful, complex relationship that’s only understood in the sketchiest terms.
In the 18th century, French truffle fans homed in on the likely conditions for truffles: oak trees (or sometimes beech, birch or hazel), rocky, well-drained soil and hot weather. Most truffles now come from purpose-built groves called trufferies but they can also be found in the wild.
Growing truffles is one thing. Finding them is another – they must be sniffed out by trained dogs or pigs. Female pigs are attracted to the aroma because it’s reminiscent of a pheromone found in boar saliva. But pigs get so excited that they’ll fight for a truffle – inspect the hands of an old French truffle farmer and he’s probably missing a fingertip or two after a porcine confrontation! Dogs are easier – they don’t want to eat truffles, they want treats for finding them.
Food journalist Max Brearley is one of Australia’s biggest truffle fans. He made The Ingredient Podcast devoted to truffles, ran a truffle festival in West Australia and is always looking for his next truffle reverie. Born in Yorkshire, Max now lives near Margaret River, with easy access to the Manjimup truffle hub. “Truffles are the most amazing natural product,” he says. “I like the agricultural story but the mystery of mycology has hooked me in too.”
Then there’s the culinary persuasion of truffles. “There’s a rich European tradition around black truffle as an ingredient that loves butter and fat – that’s a no brainer – but what I’ve loved over the years is looking at different ways you can use it,” says Max. “Most chefs will shave it or grate it over a dish and that’s great, but you also see Australian chefs like Peter Gilmore and Mark Best who will gently lay truffle through a dish or a sauce, or London chef Jeremy Chan who puts truffle jus over fried chicken.” He’s also fascinated by Ben Devlin at Pipit in northern New South Wales, who shaves fresh truffle over citrus pannacotta, and Brendan Pratt at Vasse Felix back in West Australia who uses truffle with raw fish. “I love chefs finding different ways to look at it,” says Max.
Pairing truffle and wagyu plays into the affinity truffle has with fat. “With wagyu, you’ve got the texture and taste of the fat which is such a big part of the experience,” he says. “If you put truffle over wagyu, you start experiencing the dish before the plate even hits the table with the aroma of the truffle coming first, then that’s complemented by the fat and the meat. It’s an amazing way to go about it.”