Canberrans are spoilt. We're right here in the heart of truffle country which means that every year we have the luxury of sniffing, hunting, eating and cooking truffles for three straight months.
Rodney Dunn is one of the star attractions of this year's Canberra Region Truffle Festival – and very handily he's just published The Truffle Cookbook, his own guide to the cooking and consumption of the prize fungi.
Dunn wanted to do a book full of easy, home recipes that happened to use truffle, rather than dishes you'd get at a restaurant. "The [cookbooks] that were out there, the recipes weren't very approachable. I just picked one up the other day that was on sale and one of the dishes was pieces of penne that they'd piped things into and laid them down on a plate. And I was like, who on earth is ever going to make that?" he says.
What appeals the most about truffles – the scent or its alchemy with food? "Obviously the scent is amazing and when you choose a truffle that's what you're looking for," he says. "But] what they do to food is fascinating. It's basically adding glutamate, which is what they're very high in (think MSG) to food so it enhances food and it manifests itself in different ways."
At his Agrarian Kitchen in Tasmania, Dunn hosts small truffle cooking classes and feasts – and he shares his best tips about the magic fungi with us.
How truffle works in food
"In savoury dishes it adds another level of savouriness, an [added] flavour. But when you go to sweet dishes it almost tastes like vanilla and cocoa," Dunn says.
For best results, add truffle to dairy
"It really works amazingly with anything dairy because dairy's got the lactic acid in it. And what the lactic acid does is kind of unlocks the flavour of the truffle," Dunn says. And the richness of milk, cream and cheese help to enhance the truffle. "If you add a dash of cream to a sauce or something like a vinaigrette, it lengthens the flavour, it smooths it out. And it does that with truffle too, it leaves it lingering on your palate." He recommends using truffles in sauces, in custards and ice-creams and infusing it with eggs.
Truffles are mystical
Peter Marshall, Canberra's own truffle pioneer at Braidwood, was a fount of information for Dunn, who credits him with some "really great tips", including the fact that there are thousands of truffle varieties across the country, sharing an affinity with the trees. "In Australia pretty much every native tree has a relationship with a type of truffle and basically they form this amazing telecommunications network between trees – almost a way for them to talk to each other," he says. "And this beautiful symbiotic relationship where they are able to take up more from the soil than their own roots and in return pass on sugars from their photosynthesis." It all contributes to a variety of flavours in the truffle, born out of the terroir.
Avoid the truffle oil
"I think probably the biggest mistake is buying truffle oil; and thinking that you are buying truffle," Dunn says. "Truffle oil for the most part is chemical and it's probably the surest way to destroy a dish is to put truffle oil all over it, it's nothing like the real thing. At the end of the day it's a waste of your money. You're better off saving your money for the real thing."
Yes, truffles are a splurge, but they're not crazy expensive
"The other misconception is that truffles are way too expensive for the average person to buy," Dunn says. A lot of people hear the "per kilo" price for truffles and assume that's the price per truffle. But it's not – and if you bought a kilo of truffles you'd have enough to make dishes to feed 100 people. Think of it more like saffron, which appears at first glance to be eye wateringly expensive by the kilo. "Probably for a small dinner party about 50g to100g is what you'd need," Dunn says. "So it's no more expensive than a nice piece of seafood or a piece of meat. A little bit of quality truffle goes a long way."
To shave or infuse?
There's some disagreement about whether you should shave truffle on top of a dish or whether you're better off infusing it through the dish. Some chefs say shaving it on top is a waste of the flavour, and you should cook it in with the food. Others say you should infuse ingredients, such as butter, eggs or milk. Dunn reckons it's nice to have a bit of the truffle on top of the food – but it's all about the application of heat.
"If you apply too much heat to it you can cook the flavour out of it. Likewise if you shave it without the dish being hot then you won't get the flavour," he says. "So a little bit of heat to warm it up and break the flavour down, and obviously putting it into things and infusing it is great. It's a delicate balance there somewhere in the middle."
Favourite truffle dish?
Dunn's current truffle love is a rich, luxurious sounding pasta dish. "I think simple is always good and I apply that across my food," he says. "With truffle probably my favourite dish is a very simple egg pasta tossed with truffle butter and with sort of truffle-infused egg yolks folded into it while it's still warm. You cannot get any purer truffle flavour than that."
The Truffle Cookbook by Rodney Dunn is published by Penguin. $59.99. Rodney Dunn will be in Canberra at the Truffle Scents and Sensibilities event at Hotel Hotel on July 31. $255. Book at e.mybookingmanager.com/foodandwordstruffles2016