Updated: Jan 27
As we run up to the 2023 harvest, we are going do something a bit unique. We have scanned the Internet as well as many many books and have failed to find a resource that comprehensibly sets out the variables on how to successfully use truffles in the kitchen. Here we are not talking about finding a truffle recipe but the actual use and creation of your own simple dishes like risottos, adding them to a steak or even a pasta dish. Our searching came out of the many conversations we have had over the years with people who have recounted their negative experiences with truffles, both in restaurants and at home. So this year, we are going to produce a set of monthly feature articles aimed at improving truffle success every time you use this most glorious of ingredients in your own home cooking.
Our path will meander through what are truffles, to what is it about them that gives them their unique flavor to what wine and coffee appreciation theory has to say about also appreciating truffles. As we go, we will occasionally step off our path to explore some of the lesser know but still amazing facts and mysteries that truffles continue to hold today.
So strap in and don’t forget if you have any questions please message us or leave a comment below. Grab a cup of tea or even a whiskey or wine, settle in, get comfortable and enjoy the journey to our first harvest of ripe aromatic truffles in June. Ready?…… Off we go!
What are truffles?
So what are truffles? Well in the simplest of terms, they are a type of mushroom that lives and grows entirely underground. They are a mushroom in the kingdom of fungi and while they do have some mushroom characteristics there are many characteristics that are unique and adapted to their life of living underground. For this article we are going to explore truffles generally including the European table truffles because as you will see they really are a very amazing thing, apart from the fact that we humans have had a love affair with them for thousands of years.
Like mushrooms (tomatoes and other fruit), truffles contain the seeds or spores necessary for their reproduction. If you cut open a black winter truffle, the white veins you notice contain the spores. This explains why truffles are frequently described as the ‘fruiting body’ of the organism. But unlike mushrooms, which are above ground and can use the wind to transport their spores, truffles have developed a much more ingenious method of ‘seed’ dispersal; this is where it starts to get special. Amongst the many aromatic gifts that have been bestowed on truffles by evolution, one is that they secrete the pheromome alpha-androstenol which attracts mammals to eat them and distribute their spores all over the place in their scats. Boars are among the animals that produce this steroid in their saliva and this accounts for the attraction of sows to truffles and their traditional use in truffle hunting.
Finding truffles will be the subject of another article but to whet your appetite, have a look at the clip below. It is a lovely story of a hunter in France maintaining the tradition of training pigs to find truffles.
Native Australian Truffles
But pigs are not the only distributor of truffle spores, marsupials also distribute truffle spores and we are not talking about recently arrived European truffles. For thousands and thousands of years the main distributor of Australia’s naturally occurring truffles have been marsupials including the Long Footed Potoroo (potorous longipes), Gilbert’s Potoroo (potorous gilbertii) and the Eastern Bettong (bettongia gaimardi) to name but a few. So yes, if you did not already know it, Australia has truffles.
About 300 truffle species are documented in Australia, but recent fieldwork has identified many new species which are still awaiting classification and publication. From this work, it appears that there are between 1200-2400 truffle species in Australia. By comparison, there are only a couple of hundred truffle species in Europe where there has been far more study of them than Australia. As a species, truffle are surprisingly common here - so common that they have been documented as existing in some suburban gardens. For example, during the transformation a suburban Canberra front yard (from a lawn and a few eucalypts to shrub-filled gardens beds), over a dozen truffle species were found including the Hydnangium pictured below.
Truffles are part of Aboriginal lore.
Some Australian truffle species are considered to be medicinal and there are some that are edible. Choiromyces aboriginum and Laccocephalum mylittae are considered a native food by Aboriginal people and have been cooked and eaten for who knows how long. Some however, are considered to be of evil magic. I won’t go any further than that here as this is not in our area of expertise and much of this knowledge is still with local elders. If you would like a little more information google can find some limited amounts of written information or if you like there is some information here.
Truffles and the Australian environment
Truffles are so wide spread that they are actually an essential part of the Australian forest ecosystem. They grow on the roots of many different Australian plants, including paperbarks, eucalypts, casuarinas, and many shrubs. Like European truffles, Australian truffles also use pheromone and odors to attract animals. So if you are in the bush and pick up the smell of peanut butter or bubble gum and there is no explanation for it then its probably the local truffles or if you inexplicably smell petrol or rotting onions, freshly laid road tar or even dog poo then its also probably the truffles. Don’t you love it?
Truffles grow extensive networks underground which feed trees
Truffles are said to have mycorrhizal relationships with the trees they attach to. In mycorrhizal relationships the truffle attach to the plant's roots and form a relationship which has benefits for both the tree and the truffle. Truffles are provided carbohydrates, such as glucose and sucrose, which are the product of photosynthesis, and in return the plant gains the benefits of the truffle’s mycelium which are a root-like structure of a fungus which consist of vast branching, thread-like hyphae. (I know its getting a bit technical, the links help. Not far to go now). The truffle mycelium improves the plants access to water and mineral nutrients which occurs partly because of the larger surface area of fungal hyphae, and partly because the fungi can mobilize soil minerals otherwise unavailable to the plant's roots. Under the right conditions these mycelium networks can become immense and is something we as truffle farmers work to promote in our truffieres. Research has confirmed that these mycelium networks will extend out from tree to tree and allow for communication to occur across the network for the transportation of water, carbon, and other nutrients from plant to plant where it is needed.
But that is not the end of it, mycorrhizal relationships keep our plants healthy in a range of other complex ways that are probably beyond the scope of this article. The image below gives a bit of a summary of this and by clicking on the image you can read even more.
So as you can see, not only are truffles ( the European variety) a joy at the table, they are vital to the health of our forests particularly here in Australia where our soils generally are more depleted of nutrients and water than other parts of the globe.
Well we hope you enjoyed our first feature article. It's not focused entirely on the European truffles but we hope gives a deeper appreciation of another side of the truffles you may not have been aware. Truffles and fungi more broadly really are vitally important, not only to the health of we humans, but the entire planet biome.
Update on European truffles
We have not actually spoken to our usual list of suppliers this week but we have noticed on the socials there has been a lot of activity and supply being made available running up to the Chinese New Year. Again, surprisingly there seems to be some Alba available, this is very late in the season for the Alba. While other varieties are becoming available the main supply would be of black winter truffles at this time. Prices should be increasing but do check ahead and if you can, make sure you examine any truffle you are considering purchasing.
Restaurants with Truffles on the menu
We have not checked this list over the last week but we can say at some time over summer these restaurants have served up truffle. One addition to the list from the last time we published it is Devon Cafe. We are fan of Devon. Head Chef Zac Tan and a few of his crew visited our farm and we have had truffle meals at Devon several times. Zac understands truffle so their creations always do truffles justice. We don't sell our truffle and have not been paid by Devon so that is an independent review and recommendation. Let us know what you think.
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