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."
What to pay
Decent black Australian truffle is selling for around $2.50-$3 a gram, and you can buy as little as 20 grams online. Depending on what you're preparing, you need about three to eight grams of truffle per person per course.
How to store them
Moisture is the enemy of the truffle, so wrap it in a paper towel and keep it in a plastic container in the fridge, changing the paper towel daily. Looked after like this, a fresh truffle should keep for about two weeks, maybe a little more.
How to get the most out of them
Truffle plays well with cheese, eggs, dairy and even chocolate. Put it in a tub with eggs to infuse, slip slices under the skin of a chicken breast before roasting, shave over pasta, polenta or risotto, or squish some into the best cheese toastie you'll ever have.
Beyond truffle season
Making homemade truffle oil is a bad idea unless you're going to use it within a couple of days, thanks to the risk of botulism poisoning. Truffles can be frozen – just keep them wrapped and in an airtight container. Microplane the frozen truffle when you're cooking. Truffle butter is the gift that keeps on giving (see recipe below). When all else fails and you have some spare truffle on your hands, you can stick it in a bottle of vodka. "The alcohol means it will be quite safe for about a year," says grower Nigel Wood.
Where to buy (and try) truffles
Madame Truffles, 17 Yarra Place, South Melbourne, madametruffles.com.au
Truffle Melbourne pop-up until the end of August, 260 Collins Street, Melbourne, trufflemelbourne.com/popup
Lavish seven-course truffle dinner at Alfred Place by Rockpool Events on Saturday, July 29 from 6.30pm. $400 a head, including matched wines. Bookings: email email@example.com.
Madame Truffles pop-up until September 3, rear 259 Riley Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, madametruffles.com.au
Gourmet Life, 52-60 New South Head Road, Edgecliff, gourmetlife.com.au
Five things I learnt about truffle cookery from Rodney Dunn
By Callan Boys
Rodney Dunn, from Tasmania's Agrarian Kitchen, released The Truffle Cookbook last year, loaded with tips, tricks and recipes. He now runs masterclasses in truffle cookery to help you get the most out of your black gold. AEG Australia, who fitted out Dunn's cooktops and ovens at The Agrarian Kitchen, invited me to Tassie for one such class. Here's what I took away, in addition to new skills picking radishes, deboning goat and eating truffled eggs.
1. There are a lot of fancy truffle shavers on the market, but a Microplane is just as good.
2. Never store your truffles with rice. The rice will dry the truffles and destroy their aroma. If you want truffled risotto, just grate in the truffle when cooking.
3. Truffle and dairy are best friends because the dairy's lactic acid unlocks the truffle's flavour.
4. Black truffle in dessert is amazing and tastes almost like vanilla and cocoa.
5. Taking the time to churn your own truffle butter is a richly rewarding experience and enhances almost anything you add it to, especially warm sourdough on a cold morning. Add as much or as little truffle as you like.
Callan Boys travelled to the Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School as a guest of AEG Australia.
The Agrarian Kitchen's truffle butter
500ml pouring cream
sea salt flakes
finely grated black truffle, to taste
1. Whisk the cream in an electric mixer until it separates into large yellow clumps of butter and a whey-like liquid. Pour through a sieve set over a bowl, discarding the whey.
2. Rinse the butter under cold water, massaging to remove any traces of buttermilk, as these will cause the butter to turn rancid more quickly. Add salt and truffle to taste and massage to combine.
3. Place the butter in an airtight container and refrigerate until required. It will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.