Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Winter Truffles

On our recent trip to Tasmania, I was so excited to see fresh truffles for sale at the farmer’s market. I absolutely love them, and being such a rare (and expensive!) treat, it isn’t very often that you see them available for the average shopper to purchase as a raw ingredient. A friend recently asked me what truffles taste like – hmmm... hard to pin down, as they have a really unique flavour and aroma, and if you asked 50 people you would probably get 50 different answers. My personal description would be - earthy, pungent, a bit mushroomy with the undertones of Autumn leaves and Patchouli. They can be a bit of an acquired taste, but that dark, rich character really appeals to me. If truffles were a subculture, I reckon they would be Goths - dark, brooding and mysterious!

A truffle is actually the fruit body of an underground fungus called Ascomycete, which grows in a symbiotic relationship around the root systems of trees, most commonly oaks. They are harvested by special truffle dogs that are trained for this purpose. The truffle seller I spoke to at the market told me that his truffle dogs are so well trained, that they can smell whether or not the truffles are mature and ready to harvest, and will leave the ones that aren’t ready to dig up. Clever dogs!
Australia’s very first black truffles were grown near Deloraine in Northern Tasmania in 1999. This is where the truffles at the market came from. The area is ideally suited to a longer, colder growing season – which means truffles with a stronger, sweeter aroma than those grown in warmer climates. This makes Tasmanian truffles much sought after for their taste and quality.

Fresh Tasmanian Black Truffles

Once harvested, truffles should be eaten within about 10 days. Being a living organism, once taken away from their source of nourishment, they start to break down. A truffle will lose about 3% of their weight a day, once harvested. They should be stored in the fridge, wrapped loosely in paper towel, in a glass jar with a lid. This will prevent the whole fridge and everything in it being overcome with truffle!

Now let’s talk cost. The current market price for truffles is $2000 a kilo. Yep. $2000 smackeroos. That was the going price of the black beauties I found at the market. But as the truffle farmer reminded me, you would normally only serve around 6-8 grams per person. Well.....when you put it that way.....  And yes, I succumbed. We bought 50g worth. I used the excuse that it was a treat because we were on holidays.
That night I made a classic Italian truffle pasta dish. Simple and heavenly. Just spaghetti cooked al dente, good butter, finely shaved truffle, a little Parmesan and salt and pepper. So decadent, so aromatic - downright sexy! I used half of the truffles we bought, and took the other half home with us to enjoy a week later.

Tasmanian Black Truffle Pasta

The truffle season in Tasmania goes from June to September, so now is the perfect time to enjoy them if you have the opportunity to. And yes, they really are all that.

The black truffles we bought were from Truffles of Tasmania. I notice that they do sell them online, so if you are dying to experience the Tasmanian truffle season without leaving your kitchen, you can get more information here:
A word about truffle oil Oh boy. Where do I begin? The first thing to say is that the vast majority of "truffle oil" that you see for sale hasn't ever been anywhere near a real truffle. Sorry folks, but that's the reality. It's frequently just synthetically made from a compound called Dithiapentane, mixed together with some olive oil and flogged off to unknowing punters.  At first sniff, it's kind of like the smell of truffles, but the taste? Well, it aint' nothing like the real thing. Frankly, I find it cloying and absolutely vile - I really don't know why people still insist on ruining perfectly good ingredients with the hideous stuff.

Having said that, you can buy truffle oil that is legit - that is, oil infused with actual truffles. It tastes very different to the awful fake stuff that currently floods the market, and used judiciously can actually enhance rather than trash the right dish. Read the labels and ask questions - if the ingredient list mentions "truffle flavour" or "truffle essence" then it is fake. For Australian Gourmet Goddess readers, I do know that the truffle oil from the Simon Johnson label uses the real thing (the oil is infused with French truffles). I'm sure there are others - so do your research and buyer beware.