Truffles for Dummies: what to do with an Australian black truffle

I had only ever eaten improper truffle before this season (that is, flavoured truffle oil), but I have been making up for lost time. I had planned to make a rare restaurant visit for my birthday a few weeks ago, but Owen, I and our babysitter were all sick. The following weekend, I decided it would be wise to spend some money on a truffle as an alternative treat.

seller

Black Perigord truffles are in season from late May to early August, although better from the middle part of that period because they need some decent frosts to mature. A co-op of local growers is selling local black truffles by the piece at the Farmer’s Market (Saturday mornings at the EPIC showgrounds in the north of Canberra). I got there early, but not horrifyingly so, and there was still plenty available. Considering that it was selling at $3000 a kilo, the upper end of the price for fresh Australian truffle, that might not be a big surprise.

That said, Reemski of I am Obsessed with Food found some fresh truffle in Sydney at $4896 a kilo. Simon Johnson stores are selling fresh truffle from Manjimup in WA at $2750 a kilo, but you need to pick it up from one of their stores; they recommend at least 15 grams per person. The info sheet handed out by the local co-op suggests a minimum entree serve per person of 3 grams, and a main course portion of 5 grams, but they’re restaurant portions, not homestyle ones. I bought 20 grams for $60, which came in a ziploc bag with a piece of kitchen paper.

truffle slice

truffle egg and riceThe first thing I did was grab the jar of carnaroli rice I had ready, stuff the truffle in there and put some eggs from our hens on top to infuse for 48 hours. I’ve since found out that for optimal truffle love the jar should go in the fridge – even if it’s just rice and truffle – and there should be a peice of absorbent kitchen paper in there, replaced daily, to collect any moisture. Truffle, of course, being a fungus and no friend to moisture once harvested.

It was hard waiting, but I found opening the jar and regularly sniffing it helped. The scent was described to me by a friend last week as “like sex and puppies”. It’s a low, intensely savoury umami-ness – penetrating, earthy, full and deeply, deeply appealling. Even now, a couple of weeks later, I can still get a good snoutfull of the aroma from the rice.

Slicing truffle super thinly (or grating with a microplane) is wise because a greater surface is exposed to release the aroma. And truffles love fat, which helps the aroma linger. They are also great friends to eggs, mushrooms, pasta, risottos, chicken and the pale end of the root veg scale – see the local growers guide for more info.

scrambled eggsOur first proper taste was truffled eggs for breakfast on the Monday morning. Mornings can be very long in this house, as we are usually woken very early by our youngest son and even though the Winter days are sunny and often quite pleasant, it’s uniformly dark and grimly mid-winterish at 5:30am . I don’t often make scrambled eggs and this time I did it in a bain marie, with just a spoonful of cream and the beaten eggs, and we ate it on some toasted sourdough.

Isn’t the colour amazing? We microplaned some truffle over the top – not a huge amount, less than one third of the truffle. One of the best things about eating truffle this way is that the shavings are right under your nose and the intensity of the aroma is very powerful. The dish is all about the texture of the egg and the aroma of the truffle – we agreed that you could not put too much truffle on scrambled egg.

truffled soup The next dish I made was my masterchef fantasy soup using parsnip, celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes. It was very simple: sweat diced veg in butter and olive oil, add chicken stock and simmer, puree super fine, add a small amount of cream, season. I topped it with little truffle slivers and a drizzle of green new season local olive oil. It was great, but the truffle had by this time lost quite a lot of zing. It doesn’t have much to offer by way of texture, so to maximise the aroma (and value) it would be better to use it more quickly next time – even a couple of days makes a big difference. Owy didn’t love this, thinking that the subtlety of the truffle lost out to the Jerusalem artichoke.

I missed out on the final dish, a chicken and mushroom truffled pasta, which Owy made while I was down the coast for the weekend. He loved it, and is keen for a repeat. So am I.

I thought $60 was good value for the excitement and excellent meals we had with our truffle, and will certainly buy one again. Given the expense, I thought it might be a good idea to become a more savvy truffle purchaser so I found a particularly enjoyable way to find out more about them in a truffle and wine matching night at the local Mount Majura vineyard which happens to be a ten minute drive from home and next door to a trufferie. I wanted to get my snout into some really fresh truffle, so I could purchase more confidently, and to find out how I could take cooking with truffle it “to another level” with some good wine.

It was a little awkward arriving – on time, by myself – to find only two others there. But I was promptly handed a glass of the delicious 2008 Chardonnay which helped (they’d found out that week that the wine had acheived a gold medal at the 2009 Winewise Small Vignerons Awards). Gradually another twenty or so people arrived, most of whom seemed to know each other from the Canberra branch of Slow Food.

The evening began with a talk from Sherry McArdle-English, the owner of French Black Truffles of Canberra and a very charming and knowledgable presenter. She described the move to a farming life following her husband Gavan McArdle’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and the process of finding the perfect crop. The local climate (blisteringly hot in Summer, plenty of Winter frost) and the limestone soil was perfect for black truffles.

Sherry had brought with her a jar of truffles harvested that day – about 200 grams/$400 worth in this jar:

200 g jar of truffles

She suggested that those who were unfamiliar with truffle should briefly smell, pause and repeat the process twice – we are somewhat hardwired to the scents we know by adulthood, and learning a new one can be a challenge for our system. (I’ve heard a dragonfruit grower from NT describe a similar process with getting to love that fruit – now my older son’s favourite.)

The first course was truffled cambembert, which had been split horizontally and infused with three layers of fine truffle slices for 24 hours, and unrefrigerated for the last 4 hours or so. It was great, although it could easily have been infused for 48 hours. Given how fricking cold parts of my house are, I would happily leave it unrefrigerated the entire time, but you may live in the tropics, who knows.

truffled camembert

With it we tasted more of the 2008 Chardonnay and the buttery, golden 2003 Chardonnay – the greater complexity and weight of which made it clearly the better match.

The next three courses were prepared by local French born and trained Eric Menard, a chef and pastry chef who runs the Le Petit Furneau patisserie in Chapman in Canberra’s south.

It was extremely pleasant and fitting to have a lovely Frenchman banging on about the joys of eating truffle on Bastille day, particularly given the calibre of the dishes he offered. The first was a “Robuchon style mashed potatoes with truffle” – that is, a very fluid, loose puree.

Robuchon style mashWith it we tasted a 2008 Riesling and a 2008 Pinot Gris. I preferred the buttery, passionfruit flavours of the Pinot Gris as a stand alone flavour, but the Riesling was the winner with the dish.

And how good was it?

mash licking

Thanks to the lovely Karen, who I met that evening, for snapping that photo. Karen is an ex-wine marketer (if I’d known you could do a degree in wine marketing I don’t think I would have gone to law school after all) and a thoroughly charming person. I was lucky to be seated near her and to get the benefit of hearing a much more educted palate than mine discussing in an analytical way how the wines worked with the dishes.

I would show you a picture of the next course, a pan seared pork fillet with mushroom and truffle jus, but we got over excited and I didn’t pick up the camera until this stage of things:

finger lickin' pork

That’s Karen.

The pork dish was just UNBELIEVABLY GOOD. Like so many magnificent dishes in the French tradition, it began simply with a bucket of good butter and eschallots, followed with mushrooms and reducing stock to make an unctuous sauce that was totally plate-lick worthy. I admit to eyeing off the remaining sauce smear on the plate of the chap next to me. Thank goodness I managed to not just snatch it up. I wanted to.

The wines with the pork fillet were a 2008 Pinot Noir and the winery’s flagship, a Dinny’s Block from 2004 (Dinny Killen was the original owner of the vineyard). Delicous as the Cabernet franc (69%), Merlot (20%) and Cabernet sauvignon (11%) blend is – and it’s a wonderful, mouth-filling wine – the lighter more minerally Pinot sat better with the pork.

The final dish came with instructions – served in a wine glass, we were to stir before eating so that the layers of flavour would meld. It was a rice pudding heavy with a vanilla-y creme anglais, topped with acidic Granny Smith apples caramelised in butter (no sugar) and topped with truffle.

dessert

It was a brilliant presentation of Chef Menard’s proposition that truffle can work well in any type of dish that properly balances creaminess/fattiness and acidity. The wines – a 2008 Rose and Woolshed Creek Sticky – were lovely, but irrelevant. It needed no accompaniment.

Four tasting plates and eight tasting samples of wine cost me $50, which I thought was extremely good value. I was satisfied that the truffle I’d purchased at the markets was very fresh and a fair price. The just-harvested truffle from the neighbouring farm did smell a little different – more minerally, with almost a menthol, Eucalyptusy note. Julia, the vineyard’s knowledgable marketing person who had led the friendly discussion amongst the guests of their wine preferences with each dish, said that the vineyard’s new wines being launched at the end of the month (pdf) had a similar flavour profile – must be that terroir thing.

I know some people slag off Canberra, and to them I say – my birthday is in the middle of our local truffle season. Sucks to be not me.

(Or Cath from The Canberra Cook, who’s also been playing with truffles.)

More information

“Understanding Truffles” at The Australian Truffle Grower’s Association stie is informative and has links to even more info.
McArdle’s truffles can be ordered through the Mart Deli at Fyshwick Markets. Order by Monday/Tuesday and pick up at the end of the week – 02 6295 3604.

38 comments ↓

#1 Hedonistic Hostess on 21.07.09 at 8:34 pm

Yum, yum and more yum! I’ve had a good play with truffles in the last couple of years and find the same thing…it needs to be used fast. But I’ve had very good results with mixing chopped truffle through butter and freezing it. The truffle butter can then be used to top fresh pasta or a good hunk of steak. I used my truffle butter about 3 months after I’d first frozen it and it was still fantastic. Great post!

#2 Zoe on 21.07.09 at 8:43 pm

Thanks, HH, and thanks very much for the butter idea.

I’m looking forward to trying some of my new wines with the next one, and wishing I hadn’t gutsed the Ladies Who Lunch chardonnay already.

#3 Reemski on 21.07.09 at 9:00 pm

Oh, I love the sound of that education/dinner session! I want more truffle too! Wish I’d been in Canberra for the truffle fest! People tell me it was great!

#4 Zoe on 21.07.09 at 9:32 pm

It was great, Reemski, even though I had to be grown up and drive home. Next time might get a cab!

Well, the Hotel Realm which was supposed to be hosting the big whizz-bang masterclasses weekend pulled out at the last minute, which pissed a lot of people off.

The growers though, are really sensibly pursuing developing a local market. There’s a run down of the more “festivally” things, and also links to all the restaurants serving truffle dishes and truffle degustations at http://trufflefestival.com.au There’s even a brewery pumping a specially brewed ale through truffles (pdf) – which my beer loving and brewing partner says is not as great as you might hope.

#5 Ed on 21.07.09 at 9:57 pm

Not one plate licker but two. We need to start a Flcikr group – plate lickers’ anonymous. I must admit I’ve only had truffle twice this season – what am I saying? Thrice in as many weeks.

#6 dogpossum on 21.07.09 at 9:57 pm

Wow, that was just the best fewd post ever. I don’t know if I’d trust myself with truffles, so it was really nice to read my way through your experiments.
Yay.

#7 Zoe on 21.07.09 at 10:14 pm

“I liked a plate and I liked it”, perhaps?

And dogpossum, I’m curious about what kind of trouble you think you’d get into … truffle fevah?

#8 Dr Sister Outlaw on 21.07.09 at 10:15 pm

OMG, OMG, OMG … this is a world of flavour that never ever ever comes to Katoomba and I am so, so jealous.

They grow truffles now in my heart country, which is Tassie, and which is where the saffron I bought today came from. And I have hazelnut trees which may, one day, carry truffles.

But you know? I’ve never tasted one. Not even truffle oil. Sex and puppies sounds SO good.

#9 Karen Plate Licker on 21.07.09 at 10:50 pm

Those who criticise Canberra have never lived here! But it is a secret that we are protecting so guesss what those who have never lived here it sucks, heh heh!!!

#10 Liam on 22.07.09 at 7:28 am

Plates/I’ve licked a few/but then again/too few to mention

#11 kathryn on 22.07.09 at 9:22 am

Ah Zoe, this is what I need to read a crib sheet on truffles. I’ve never actually tasted them – would love to, keep on meaning to, but never actually got round to it. So it’s interesting to read how you used and what quantities.

The dinner sounds like great fun too. Nothing wrong with a bit of plate licking in my book. It’s high praise to the cook.

#12 firsttruffle on 22.07.09 at 2:37 pm

You should try some of the best aromatic truffles in the country as voted by the judging panel at the recent Canberra Truffle Fesitval from Tassie and they are currently only $1500perkg plus postage.

#13 Emica on 22.07.09 at 5:33 pm

I’ve never had truffle and just thought it was some cheffy snobby obsession because they’re hard to cultivate, only in season for 5 mins and then you have to stop the truffle pigs snaffling them etc etc. but, Zoe, your wonderful post has inspired me!

re the Canberra secrect- I did my Honours years at ANU and agree, the bad/ boring rep is definitely undeserved!

#14 Zoe on 22.07.09 at 9:26 pm

They use dogs now, Emica, because the pigs love truffle so much they might BITE YOUR HAND OFF.

Tempting as cheaper truffles sound, firsttruffle, I’m happy to support local producers. Also, your website doesn’t make it easy to order.

#15 dylwah on 23.07.09 at 8:56 am

sounds like you had a lot of fun Zoe. Dr Honey and i simply forgot to have truffles when we were in Rome. every morn we would get up and have espresso and pane three or four doors from a shop with a large ostentatious bowl of them on display.

you might be pleased to know that i rarely spruik canberra down here in Melbourne town, tho that might have to change when they get around to releasing the Baterz tribute cd i’ve been hearing about

#16 librarygirl on 23.07.09 at 10:32 am

Really fascinating post – previously knew nothing except they were really expensive.
That camembert and truffle photo made me drool.

#17 Helen on 23.07.09 at 1:55 pm

$3000 a kilo

[Faints]

#18 FDB on 23.07.09 at 3:58 pm

“That camembert and truffle photo made me drool”

Me too, until I noticed the teeth marks.

That fantasy soup looks totes awse though.

And shit, if my only chance at the camembert was partly eaten by such as you Zoe, I’d go there.

I’m in Tassie this weekend, and this post had made me determined to get truffly one time.

#19 Zoe on 23.07.09 at 4:08 pm

dylwah, Ampersand Duck wrote up the Canberra version of the Baterz tribute show, which you might enjoy.

FDB, firsttruffle’s name up there links to their site, with contact details to get your paws on some Tassie truffle – might be worth a look.

And I doubt anyone could get past me to my truffled camembert. Ever.

#20 Injera on 23.07.09 at 4:11 pm

I adore truffles and have been seeing some at the market over the past few weeks but have been too timid to even ask about them. Thanks for the post – I almost feel emboldened to buy a smidge and experiment now!

#21 FDB on 23.07.09 at 5:06 pm

Ta Zoe – didn’t notice any linkage due to the very tastefully understated underlining here at PDP.

Although I agree, their website could use some work.

What I really want to know is, can I buy them there and see the farm and then bring them back to the mainland? But I suppose you don’t know, and the website has no info.

I suppose I could callone of the phone numbers, but what is this? 2002?

#22 FDB on 23.07.09 at 5:08 pm

p.s. I was going to say “…back to Australia”, but thought the better of enraging my soon-to-be hosts. Burning torches and pitchforks in the botty all the way back to the airport – no thanks.

#23 dylwah on 23.07.09 at 5:58 pm

thanks Zoe, I’ll be getting to the melbourne leg, baby and toddler permitting.

Some of those tassie truffles have a bit of a history. Dr H and i were invited to invest in a truffle farm back in ’98, we went to a financial advixiser who pointed out great holes in the scheme and then did a great spiel for Timbercorp. we decided to put our money into food and wine.

#24 Zoe on 23.07.09 at 10:02 pm

FDB, I wouldn’t bother with contacting Tim from Truffles of Tasmania at that link up there. Despite coming here to tell us how great they were, when I asked him for some info as his website was a bit opaque, he told me it was “intended for buyers who want to purchase 10kg per week, so we are not really targeting the 10 gram buyers here, although we do sell down to 100 grams to foodies all over the country.”

Way to build goodwill and an eager market of truffle purchasers.

#25 Dr Sister Outlaw on 23.07.09 at 10:35 pm

and we iz not foodies? we iz, we really iz!!

#26 The Devil Drink on 24.07.09 at 6:14 pm

Truffles Tim: you need to organise yourself interstate syndicates, you want to take your cues from the success stories of retail. Your trusted intermediaries handle the ten and twenty kilos, breaking it down into smaller quantities for dealers with regular customer bases.
Grow your relationships with existing communities and institutions and start a truffle culture. Get under-18s to move the street truffles, ’cause minors won’t suffer the same law penalties as adult truffle sellers. And stay yourself away from the foodies, man, they’re a world of pain.
WWWSD (What Would Wesley Snipes Do)?

#27 Karen Plate Licker on 24.07.09 at 7:09 pm

Hell yes, divide and conquer! One must get ones truffles any way one can and there is nothing new about syndicate purchasing after all, IGA (Independent Grocers Australia) even do it legally!

#28 The Devil Drink on 24.07.09 at 8:58 pm

One must get ones truffles any way one can

But one oughtn’t to get high off one’s own supply. Just a bit of advice for prospective truffle-gangstas.

#29 FDB on 25.07.09 at 11:19 am

He didn’t even answer my call when I rang to say I’d be in the area, so clearly he’s just not that interested in small fry.

But still… what DD said.

#30 Cath the Canberra Cook on 29.07.09 at 3:02 pm

Woo, just saw the trackbacks. I’m catching up on my blog reading since I’ve been away. Thanks!

I’ve just used some of the infused rice yesterday in a simple risotto with mushrooms (much like my pasta) and it had the same stealth effect of being somehow extra good without obvious in your face TRUFFLE!

#31 Zoe on 29.07.09 at 4:40 pm

I like the idea of stealth truffle … da da DAH!

#32 Zoe on 29.07.09 at 4:42 pm

… and forgot to say, thought the veggie love in your Canberra Times review of Rubicon today was great.

#33 Fred on 05.10.10 at 9:31 am

Thanks for the post Zoe. We’ve just been notified of some development assistance $ for the Truffle Festival next year so stand by for an even bigger truffle hit in 2011.

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