Who’s afraid of tuber melanosporum? Plenty of people, it seems. More than any other foodstuff, the not-so-humble truffle is the subject of misunderstanding, confusion and downright hostility. The anti-truffle forces mutter about their expense and short shelf-life; even those who might happily agree to the $20-plus truffle “supplement” offered in restaurants now that the southern hemisphere season is in full swing may well baulk at the idea of using truffle at home.
But perhaps it’s time to get to know this capricious little fungus a bit better, not least because Australia is now the world’s fourth-largest producer: no small beer for a country that produced its first truffle in 1999. And quite possibly it’s because of the truffle’s shaky start in Australia – its standoffish European hauteur that caused so much heartache for our homegrown industry pioneers – that these treasured tubers are still seen as a product reserved for the kind of people who feed beluga caviar to their toy poodles.
According to the growing tribe of truffle growers – there are about 250 around the nation, with most in WA and the rest in Victoria, Tasmania, NSW and the ACT – its mystique is just a lot of hot air. As Nigel Wood, a Gippsland truffle grower and director of the Truffle Melbourne festival says, “We’re all about democratising the truffle. It’s very cost-effective during the season. You don’t need to buy a kilogram of truffle; you can buy 40 grams and have a great dinner party and enough truffle left over for your scrambled eggs in the morning.”
Part of truffle’s image problem is the misconception that it’s a European delicacy reserved for situations involving the dramatic removal of silver cloches by waiters who simper around sir and madam. But the truffle is not just expensive magical thinking. A decent truffle, treated with a bit of care, will value-add to a meal with its indescribably addictive musky, earthy scent. It’s a dab of cologne behind the ears of your mushroom risotto or roast chicken. Wildly adaptive, it’s a flavour enhancer, like nature’s MSG, for anything from butter to booze.
We might now be producing some 10 tonnes of truffle each year, about 85 per cent of which is exported, but we still have a long way to go in terms of treating the ingredient with less reverence and more appetite. As Wood explains, the inspiration for Truffle Melbourne hit him five years ago when travelling in a tiny Spanish village during their truffle season. “It was just a small village but every cafe had two or three truffle dishes on the menu. It was a lesson in not being afraid of something, of embracing it and not reserving it for some fancy occasion.”
Here’s a secret: truffle doesn’t want fancy playmates. It hangs out best in simple company, slumming it with things like scrambled eggs, cucina povera pasta, and roast chicken.
Perhaps Philippe Mouchel of Melbourne’s Restaurant Philippe, is the exception to the keep-it-simple rule, as evidenced by the classic Paul Bocuse recipe of black truffle soup, with foie gras, chicken and vegetables covered with a puff pastry lid that he tries to make for his diners each Saturday. “People need to not be afraid of the truffle but they also shouldn’t overdo it. Be careful, slice it thin for maximum aroma and don’t heat it above 80 degrees or it will lose its pungency.”
When it comes to the home cook, at least, Dion Range, managing director at WA-based Stonebarn truffles, Australia’s fourth-largest producer, is a firm adherent of the less-is-more principle. “The more simple the dish the better. The more complicated the dish the more the truffle will be competing with all the other flavours and aromas,” he says.
“Just relax, and use it wherever and whenever you can, because truffle makes everything taste better.”