For the past decade Australian truffles have enjoyed a growing popularity at top restaurants, enhancing risottos, infusing eggs and adding a surcharge to lobster rolls, custard tarts and everything in between.
This winter, Sydneysiders can expect to see and sniff more truffles than ever before, thanks to a bumper crop of the prized fungus and a growing appetite of diners to spend more on luxury dishes.
For many truffle growers in Canberra and NSW, summer rain and a late autumn cold snap has brought on truffle season a fortnight early.
"The season doesn't usually get going until mid June, but orchard owners are already pulling up great truffles," says Dick Groot Obbink, president of the Canberra Region Truffle Festival Association and owner of Durran Durra truffiere near Braidwood.
"We're excited about the public getting to taste truffles this winter because they're going to be so readily available."
Harvested until September with the help of specially-trained sniffer dogs, truffles have an earthy flavour and intense forest-floor aroma. The black Perigord (tuber melanosporum) is the most common truffle in Australia, grown in soil underneath a host tree.
Recent colder-than-average temperatures have led to greater frosts in the Canberra region and more aromatic truffles to enhance scrambled eggs and roast chook.
"The frost tends to pop the aroma of the truffle," says Damian Robinson of Turalla Truffles near Bungendore.
"I don't think anyone really understands why, but if you harvest it at that point, the truffle's intense perfume generally remains that way through the selling process."
While all signs are pointing to a better-than-average crop of truffles for east coast farms, in Western Australia the season is shaping up to be "a once in every fifty years event", says Australian Truffle Traders owner Gavin Booth, who grows truffles in Manjimup, four hours drive south of Perth.
"Autumn rainfall has been super useful, but we've also had a long, mild summer which helps grow truffles," says Booth.
"I've received a lot of phone calls from clients in North America and Europe who have restaurants opening up after five months of lockdown. Chefs are very excited."
Executive chef of Bennelong and Quay, Peter Gilmore, is using both Manjimup and Canberra truffles at his harbourside fine-diners.
"We are using two different truffles to support a wider range of farmers – both have excellent qualities and are excellent products," he says.
Manjimup truffles star in a dish of quail and black-pig salami ravioli with hazelnuts at Bennelong, while Quay is showcasing fragrant diamonds from Terra Preta farm near Braidwood in a walnut and truffle dumpling served as a surprise snack.
"The quality and the quantity of Australian truffles has improved each and every year as more farmers have come online," says Gilmore. "The flavour is so similar to the [French] Perigord truffles, you almost can't taste or see the difference."
Depending on the success of a season, Australia has become the third or fourth largest truffle-growing country since the first domestic tuber melanosporum orchards were planted in the 1990s.
Truffle fans don't need to visit a high-profile restaurant for the black gold these days, though. Myriad cafes now spruik truffle as an optional extra on eggs and toasted cheese sandwiches.
Redfern's Three Williams Cafe has upped the brunch ante this season with a truffle menu featuring angel-hair carbonara with smoked caviar and shaved truffle courtesy of head chef Fabian Mucke for $36, and truffle espresso-martini-flavoured tiramisu.
"Fabian came to us from Nel restaurant last year because we wanted a cracking chef to provide more than granola and run-of-the-mill toasties," says Three Williams owner Toby Iaccarino.
"More than $30 for a dish is getting steep for a cafe, but there is demand for it. Because of the pandemic, people aren't scooting off overseas and guests have become more keen to have a good old time at brunch on the weekend."
Truffle hunting in 2021
Expect to pay in the vicinity of $2.50 a gram retail for truffles, depending on grade and quality. Five grams of truffle per person, per dish, is a generous amount to budget for.
Gourmet Life at Darling Point is already stocking Tasmanian truffles and Simon Johnson stores are expecting delivery of Manjimup truffles on Friday. The Madame Truffles pop-up store – a small Disneyland of tubers – opens June 10 on Kensington Street, Chippendale.
For an actual truffle hunt with farmers and eager pooches, Dick Groot Obbink recommends booking a date online as soon as possible. The Canberra Region Truffle Festival program is full of hunts, dinners and degustations, but spots are filling fast.
"Our hunts and lunches at Turalla have been full for almost two months," says Damian Robinson. "Even though it says 'booked out' on our website, I still receive 10 emails a day asking if someone can be squeezed in for a hunt. I've never seen demand like it."
For punters keen to leave their truffle shaving to chef, it would take less time to list hatted restaurants not offering the fancy fungi as an optional extra over winter. Here's a selection of some of the best truffle dishes found in the city.
Crown's Italian fine-diner has launched a special truffle special menu including truffle with wagyu carpaccio, preserved artichoke and stracciatella for $59, served as an antipasto.
Black gold from Ganymede Truffles in the Southern Tablelands will feature from June 10 at Cook and Phillip Park's number one spot for vegan yum cha. Expect a $39 hand-torn noodle truffle creation inspired by mee hoon kueh, a traditional Malaysian-Chinese dish.
Mr Wong, CBD
Chef Dan Hong loves truffles like truffles love frost. Australian Perigords will star in various specials over the season at Merivale's Cantonese flagship, including wagyu and truffle puff dumplings ($16.50 for three).
Restaurant Hubert, CBD
Blight Street's fun-time French bunker is rocking souffle a la truffe all winter; that's souffle made with 24-month aged comte, Swiss gruyere and locally sourced black truffle for $30.
Burrata, warm pine nuts and truffles. What a simple and delicious time a Crown's temple of produce and fire. Oak-smoked salt and Pukara Estate first-pressed olive oil bolster the $40 entree, which could well lead to wood-roasted southern rock lobster shiny with truffle butter.