It goes without saying that truffles are absolutely delicious. The richness and the perfume of this superior ingredient is unique and mysterious – but it can be intimidating for some.
Director of Truffle Melbourne, Nigel Wood’s raison d’etre is to make the foodstuff more accessible to the general public. Despite the many foodies that inhabit Victoria, there are few more passionate about truffles than Wood; and when asked why he is so dedicated to them, his answer is simple.
“They’re just so beguiling, really,” he says. “There’s just nothing like them.”
Although truffle farming has an enduring history in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, it’s a relatively young practice in Australia.
The process of truffle farming intrigued Wood from the beginning. After growing up around the food industry in Australia and beyond, it wasn’t long before Wood developed a keen interest in the truffle farming process. “Around 20 years ago I invested in one of the first Australian truffieres (truffle orchards), which was in Tasmania,” Wood says.
Wood eventually acquired his own truffle farm, Truffle Paddock, and became Secretary of the Truffle Growers’ Association, a position he held for a number of years. “I just got more and more involved, I guess,” he says.
Wood is currently in Melbourne launching this year’s Truffle Melbourne. The festival is based at Melbourne’s Prahran Market, and while it’s a celebration of all things delicious, its main focus is to educate about truffles; namely, how they’re grown, how easy it is to cook with them, and most importantly, how to ensure you get your money’s worth.
“People are intimidated by the product and will often go, ‘oh, I don’t want to muck [cooking with truffle] up, it’s so expensive…’ but you know, it’s not that hard!” Wood says. “There are fantastic exotic dishes you can make with it, but actually, simple is often best.”
Wood says that although truffle is an expensive ingredient, he has some tips for making a little go a long way. “When you get your truffle home, place it on some raw eggs or risotto rice in a container in the fridge’s crisper drawer,” he says. “Without even cooking with it yet, the truffle’s flavours are already infusing into your food. You’ve got truffle infused scrambled eggs sitting in your fridge!”
Wood isn’t alone in his truffle revolution. One of his most formidable Truffle Melbourne supporters is chef Guy Grossi, who is passionate about seasonal, sustainable produce; and in particular, truffles. Grossi often uses the funghi in dishes at his restaurants Grossi Florentino Grossi describes his first experiences of truffle as “elated” – and after he got a taste for the flavour of the product, there was no going back. “I was in love at first sight – or taste – with that really pungent flavour they have; and they’re so versatile as well,” Grossi says. “When it’s in season, I use it all the time.”
While Grossi’s restaurants are at the higher end of Melbourne’s dining establishments, Grossi concurs with Wood that when it comes to truffle, using modest ingredients is often key to showing the product in its best light.
“I think the simplest dishes are the best to show off the truffle,” Grossi says. “[At my restaurants] we use it on dishes like pasta, risotto… we might do a nice white pizza with fontina and then add shaved truffle on top.
“Another dish I really enjoy doing with truffle is something I call the Prince and the Pauper, which is just sautéed potato, a little bit of onion and some butter. Add pasta, and allow it to emulsify with a little bit of stock, and then the shaved truffle just lifts it to another level.”
Grossi says that his first Australian truffle experience was slightly disappointing, given truffles weren’t being grown here (the imported truffles he tasted had been sent to him by a friend – in the post!). “By the time they got to me, they were really in bad condition… but you could still smell them and taste them and it was still a really exciting experience,” He says. But despite this, he was still blown away by his first taste of the unique food.
“But now, we have our own truffles growing in Australia, and the quality is exceptional. The smell of a Victorian grown truffle is absolutely amazing.”
Wood says the scent, as well as the appearance, is important in spotting a good, ripe, fresh truffle. “Have a sniff of a few of them, if you can,” Wood says. “There is a bit of terroir in there, like wine. So what you’re looking for is a really attractive nose, a nice aroma, a strong black colour with white marbling on the inside, and for the truffle to be firm and dry.”
What you can discern from the truffle’s perfume seems to be the most important thing about harvesting a truffle, according to Red Hill Truffles owner Jenny McAuley (McAuley also plays a large part in the Truffle Melbourne Festival). “When you’re smelling it, take your time,” she says. “You might smell a bit of a seafood scent, or the truffle might smell sweet – but anything you smell is quite legitimate. We all smell things differently.”
The smell is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to growing truffles, as I discovered visiting McAuley’s farm following the Truffle Melbourne launch. The farm in Red Hill has been in her family since 1886. Originally an apple farm, McAuley began growing trees with a view to harvesting truffles on the land in 2005. “Those first trees aren’t yet eleven years old. But I can remember the first truffles we harvested. We ate one, and we gave one of them to the local winery’s restaurant, Montalto, in Red Hill. We still have a copy of the menu that utilised that truffle, printed and framed on our wall.”
There’s no questioning why McAuley has so much pride in her ability to produce and maintain a prolific truffle farm. There is quite a science to it, and a lot of variables and challenges, when it comes to how the truffles are grown and harvested.
As we carefully pick our way through rows of trees on the truffiere, McAuley explains to the group a little bit about how the magic happens. “The majority of what I grow on the truffiere is the Perigord, or the black truffle, which grows on hazelnut and oak trees,” She says.
McAuley says oak and hazelnut trees are used because they form the best symbiotic relationship with the truffle. “The tree likes the truffle,” she says. “It doesn’t actually care about the truffle itself, but it likes the active fungus and what it does to the soil, because it kills competing weeds around the tree. And the fungus likes the tree, attaching itself to the roots to soak up the nutrients and moisture.”
McAuley says a good indication that the symbiotic relationship between the fungus and the tree is developing is by the “burnt” appearance of the ground surrounding the base, called the “brulee effect”.
“You can see the fungus is active in the soil because the grass is dead around the tree, and that’s called brulee,” she says. “Like crème brulee, it has a lovely burnt top – and that’s what tells me this tree is producing truffle.”
Of course, McAuley can’t harvest these truffles alone – she needs a little help from a gorgeous furry springer spaniel named Thomas. “This is one of the few agricultural industries that’s entirely dependent on an animal to harvest for you; and I’m entirely dependent on Thomas to find the truffle,” she says.
McAuley says people can get snobby about dogs and that lots of people favour certain animals; but after an unsuccessful experience trying to train a favoured breed, she found Thomas, a rescue dog that had been trained by a former military dog trainer.
“Thomas and I just bonded,” McAuley says. “He owns me, not the other way around! But we work really well together. So it’s a funny sort of business I’ve found myself in where my partner is a dog,” she laughs.
Dogs, of course, weren’t the first animal to be used in harvesting truffle. For over 100 years in Europe, pigs have been used to find the delicious funghi – and are commonly known as the animal traditionally used in truffle hunting. “You don’t have to train them, because they smell the scent of testosterone on the truffle, and it smells like their mate, so they want to eat it,” McAuley says. “The issue is, they eat the truffle, and I don’t fancy putting my hand down a sow’s mouth to retrieve it!”
Wood says the sow is still widely thought of as the animal used in truffle hunting. “People often think about pigs,” Wood says. “The trouble with pigs is, the sow can be 200kg or more… and trying to get in between a sow and a truffle is not going to be good for anyone!
“There are old European paintings of some of the early truffle hunters using pigs, and there are noticeably missing fingers!”
But despite all the challenges associated with growing truffle, there’s no disputing the mysterious appeal of the fungus for both producers and consumers alike.
McAuley says after moving from social work to truffle farming, she wouldn’t have it any other way; and that, despite the complexity of the practice, prospective truffle growers shouldn’t be deterred from owning a farm themselves.
“I love it. It’s wonderful. It’s absolutely wonderful,” she says. “I’m not saying growing truffles is without stress, but it’s lovely to be growing something like this. It’s just a matter of research, experience and getting a feel for what you’re doing.”
Truffles hold the same fascination and passion for Wood, which is why he is determined to spread the word that they can be enjoyed by anyone who puts their mind to it.
“We don’t have a culinary history with local truffles in Australia until recently, which is why, with Truffle Melbourne, we want to showcase local truffles, how easy they are to cook with, and how a little goes a long way,” he says. “We want to get people familiar with them.
“To me, they are a lens for other flavours; they’re a magnifier of other complimentary ingredients. And you know, I just love opening that fridge door and having that perfume wafting out! That’s why this is my favourite time of year.”