In Australia’s restaurant world today, you may come across a strange scene. A seemingly innocuous plate of pasta might be served to you, devoid of garnish – plain, simple and somewhat austere looking.
The next thing you know, the restaurant manager (or someone relatively high up in the employee hierarchy) might arrive at your table in a rather ceremonious fashion, flanked by several burly, surly men in black – sporting thinly disguised gun holsters … the manager greets you with a respectful nod, a spark of excitement passes between you – you both savour the knowledge that something wonderful is about to occur.
Gingerly, the manager unveils the object of both of your desires. It is a small black lump, of a size somewhere between a squash ball and an emu egg. It actually looks remarkably like a ball of soil from an average backyard – but is it?
As the unidentified lump hits the surrounding air, an amazing aroma wafts into your nostrils, intoxicating you, your companions, and the person serving you. The more often you smell this aroma, the more exciting it is.
Just as a fine wine is almost more about the nose as well as the palate, this small black (or white) lump emits what is described as a ‘perfume’. It’s complex, evocative and powerful.
The manager produces a handsome metal grater and like a violinist poised to strike bow to string at the start of a delicate movement, they proceed to slowly, almost sensuously grate fine shavings onto your plate.
You watch, enraptured. The aroma envelops you and your table and almost fills the entire restaurant. This sumptuous performance takes barely a minute, but as the manager shaves the final delectable sliver, you are aware that your night has instantly become magical, memorable, transformed into the stratosphere of dining delight. What are these lumps you may ask?
They don’t sound like much, but from what you’ve just described they appear to have almost mystical powers?! These fantastical fungi are called TRUFFLES. And the theatrical reverence applied to their consumption described above is totally accurate (well, maybe apart from the armed security guards, perhaps).
Truffles aren’t chocolates; they’re mushrooms – fungi (Tuber Melanosporum in fact, if you want to get technical). Unlike other mushrooms, truffles grow entirely underground. There are two types – black and white, white truffles only being found in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy and a few in Croatia, while Black are found in several European countries, as well as, recently, small amounts in Australia.
Black truffles grow exclusively around oak trees. A complex interaction exists between the truffle and the root system of the host plant. Truffles are an ancient entity and are an essential part of the ecosystems they live in.
The pungent aroma of truffles attracted a multitude of animal species way before humans cottoned on to the deal. The truffles perpetuate their existence through appealing by scent to a truffle eating animal, who then digests the truffle and then releases spores (yes, out the other end). Possessing an irresistibly attractive scent, when you live underground and need to in effect be ‘pollinated’ by those who seek you out, is a necessity for survival. The aroma needs to be powerfully seductive and worth the effort for the animal in question. And boy are truffles worth the effort – we all agree.
In fact, truffles contain Androstenol – a sex hormone found in male pigs and also human sweat glands. So there you go. Maybe the connection between food and sex is closer than we think …
It all certainly goes part of the way in explaining the value of truffles – well part of the way. Truffles are, as you imagine by the fact that they grow underground, extremely difficult to harvest. Humans need to employ animals with far more sensitive noses than their own to identify their whereabouts.
Pigs and dogs are the animals of choice, with truffle producers of late leaning more towards dogs, as they are more likely to accept other foodstuffs as a reward – it would be of course, counter-productive if the treasured fruits of labour were consumed by the employee.
Especially when you look at the fact that black truffles in Australia go at over $2,000 a kilo, are only available for 3 months and in extremely limited supply over that time.
So there you have it. Are truffles the ‘food of the gods’, a transcendental culinary experience, something to try at least once in your life …or are they little black lumps of stuff that kind of smell interesting – but really, seriously – can what’s really just basically an incredibly pricey flavour enhancer actually be all that it’s cut out to be?
There’s no way I can answer this question for you. The only way is to try them yourself – so I would say, yes, do give them a go at least once in your life. Truffle season in Australia is between May and September, and yes we did have some at the Mullet.
Stay tuned for next year’s season …