It's now officially winter in Australia, which means, among other things, truffles. Those pungent, dirt-covered lumps of "black gold" that send chefs and diners alike into salivating raptures. It's truffle season in the small pockets of carefully cultivated land in some of the coldest parts of the country.
What's so special about truffles, I hear you ask? Let me explain...
Two years ago, I went on a truffle hunt in Canberra. Truffles, you see, don't always grow where you'd like them to so you have to 'hunt' them down. Growers have to tend the soil, plant the right trees, wait several years and hope for the best. Then take a specially trained dog and sniff them out. This is what's like...
Mt Majura truffle farm sits on nine hectare of specially cultivated land that has been specially planted with 2,500 English oak, hazelnut and elm trees. Truffles are notoriously tricky to farm. They are essentially a fungus that grows on tree roots, such as the ones above, and need limey, alkaline soils, very hot summers and frosty winters to grow and mature.
In order to flourish, the truffle spores leech the nutrients from the soil and the plants themselves. The trees here are already 10 years old but only a quarter of their normal size because they're kept under a condition of stress. Poor trees. Lucky truffles.
This is a lovely black Labrador named Samson. It takes a highly trained dog with a particularly keen nose to sniff out the covert and lucrative truffles. Historically, pigs were used to sniff out truffles but they had their own agenda - to eat the truffles. Farmers lost a few fingers trying to battle it out with a 100kg hog.
Dogs are a better option.
Finding truffles is called a ‘hunt’ but it’s actually more of an architectural dig.
Australia only produces black truffles, also known as the Périgord truffle or French black truffle. White truffles are the domain of Europe and the United States and are largely harvested wild; limited availability means a heftier price tag. To cultivate them on a commercial scale is expensive, unpredictable and risky.
Success! Now, that's what I call a truffle.
Unlike other fungi, such as the mushroom, truffles are not soft and delicate; rather they're as hard as golf balls.
They have a very pungent, wet and earthy scent, like the ground after it's rained. And they are incredibly flavoursome. You only need a tiny bit to flavour a dish. In fact, with some foods, you don't even need to cut the truffle; for example, enclose a piece in an airtight container with fresh eggs and the flavour seeps into the eggs.
Truffles work best with plain or bland foods because it likes to overtake their flavours with its own. Foods such as butter, cheese, cream, eggs, rice, oil, seafood, white meats, and even chocolate. Fresh truffle will keep in a glass jar in the fridge for 2 weeks, plenty of time for experimentation. Though expensive, truffles are actually very good value for money.
Here's a few other ways to enjoy truffles...
Convinced? One thing to watch out for though is 'fake truffles' and fake truffle products like synthetic truffle oil. A good rule of thumb is that if it seems affordable, it's probably not the real thing.
If you're in Australia this winter, buy a 20g piece of truffle (they're sold in small pieces) and get cooking.
If you're in Laos however, it's a little harder. Tracking down the few restaurants in town that source Australian truffles isn't easy. So far, I've only spotted them on the menu at L'Adresse downtown.
If you have more patience, wait for the European truffles season in Sept-Dec. Then you're sure to find them at Acqua, Ai Capone, Le Silapa, La Signature and other French and Italian favourites around Vientiane.
Seen truffles elsewhere in Vientiane? Let me know. Note: chocolate truffles are not real truffles!