“The French black truffle is considered the finest of the edible fungi and has a place in French cooking prized for its unique flavour and intoxicating aroma”
Brillat Savarin, 19th century French writer
The truffle has had a chequered history stretching back to antiquity. It has been a mineral, a plant created by thunder and lightning, and, as ascetic clerics put it about in the Middle Ages, a monstrous creation of the devil. In the meantime we have grown a bit wiser.
The truffle belongs to the species of ascomycetes fungi. Actually, what has us rolling our eyes and searching for words is not the fungus, but its fruiting body or the result of subterranean sexuality. The actual fungus mycelium creates a vast network of hyphae threads that extend many meters in the ground and when the hyphae of different fungal branches meet, the result is the tuber in question; assuming the weather has been kind and the soil contains humus and chalk.
What makes the matter even more complicated, and cultivation correspondingly more ticklish, is the phenomenon of mycorrhiza. This is the close symbiotic relationship that the filament networks of fungi and tree roots enter into. A regular two-way trade goes on between them. The truffle supplies nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and similar goodies, while the tree reciprocates with carbohydrates. But the truffle does not enter into this arrangement with just any old tree. No, it must be a maple, a birch, a hazel or an elm.
Incidentally, the truffle’s name stems from the fact that it sets up home, inconsiderately, some 5 to 30 cm deep in the ground. This can cause the surface above it to rise slightly, a lifting that medieval people came to describe with the late Latin term “terra tuffolae”. Later this became progressively contracted and transformed into “tartuffole, tartufo”(Italian) “truffe” (French) and “truffle” (English).
The only fresh truffles available anywhere in the world at this time of year were unveiled to the public at Claude’s restaurant in Sydney last Thursday night. Tim Pak Poy flew down to Tasmania to help Duncan Garvey and the team from Perigord Truffles of Tasmania, to unearth this year’s first crop of the Australian production of French black truffles (Tuber melanosporum).
I met Duncan Garvey a few years ago and listened to his vision of cultivating truffles in Australia and I must admit I was a ‘non-believer’. It had never been done successfully anywhere in the world and there seemed to be a lot about truffles no one knew or could explain scientifically. Duncan, a Tasmanian with an incredible vision and the tenacity of an angry terrier, took a huge gamble and spent endless time in France talking to scientists, agriculturists, farmers, truffeliers, listening and learning. He came back to Tasmania and started inoculating trees with the black truffle spores. Within a few years he had proof that it could work. I watched his face light up when he had confirmation that the first tuber had been found. Now, a few of years later he collected 3 kg in the first week and yesterday half a kilo in just one day!
Traditionally, fresh French truffles are only available in the Northern Hemisphere winter (December, January and February). Now they are available, from Australia, to the world’s best restaurants during the months of July, August and September. This is outstanding news for fine dining restaurants like Claude’s, who scour the country for the best produce available. Dishes using ”fresh” truffles, are usually made with truffles flown in, at great expense, from Europe, arriving in Sydney eight to nine days after harvesting. Now, according to chef/owner Tim Pak Poy, “Fresh truffle dishes can now be served in Australia within 24 hours of the truffles being pulled from the ground”.
Perigord Truffles of Tasmania is the first company in Australia to develop a truffle industry. They have established inoculated forests in Tasmania and now expanded into the Southern Highlands of NSW, Yass, Tumbarumba, Oberon and in the Orange / Bathurst areas. The site of the first truffle harvest was one of the original sites where Perigord Truffles of Tasmania have produced the inoculated trees.
Perigord Truffles of Tasmania started in 1992. Today they are producing truffles from just six-year-old hazel trees, in free-draining, grainy, relatively poor soil with a pH of 7 ½ to 8.
The French black truffle is produced when the spores of the fungus Tuber melanosporum attach to the roots of oak and hazel trees to form a symbiotic relationship. The edible portion forms during autumn, and harvesting takes place in the winter once the French black truffle has matured. Trained dogs do all the finding and man does all the eating.
The Australian truffle smells unlike any truffle I have ever encountered, due to its origin from hazel trees. Once you leave it exposed for a little while, you can detect the typically sulphhydral, pongy overtones reminiscent of the white truffle from Italy. Leave it a little longer and the aroma of the French black truffle, a smell of cognac, mandarin peel and pyrroline, becomes dominant. The Australian truffles are far superior in aroma to any imported fresh truffle. Interestingly, truffle aroma is inexhaustible to the human nose. (If we smell violets we are immediately odour blind for approximately 20 minutes, not so with truffles.)
Duncan has also been importing around 40 kilos of truffles for the last few years from France, every European winter and he told the amusing story that Australian chefs didn’t like to pick the truffles with worm-holes. Asking the French about this, they answered that certainly the truffles with the wormholes were the best ones, do the worms not have first choice?
Legendary chef Pierre Koffmann, on a visit to Sydney a few weeks ago, commented after eating at Claude’s that surely, would Claude’s be situated anywhere in Europe, it would certainly earn three Michelin stars. High praise indeed! Make sure you do get a chance to taste these rare culinary treasures in the coming weeks. Tim’s ability to produce uniquely Australian dishes, using classical techniques will surpass anything you have tasted before.
When asked what he thought of this year’s first few truffles, Tim’s reply was, “Bloody exciting stuff” and someone else added “and no GST on truffles either” (yet?)
Duncan Garvey’s vision? To walk past one of the three star restaurants in France and see fresh Australian truffles on the menu. I am sure he’ll get there. Mind you, right now he’s too busy seeing, touching and smelling his dream!
To Duncan: You deserve this! My congratulations and respect!
To Tim: Save me some, I’ll be there!
Mr. Duncan Garvey
Co Chairman, Perigord Truffles of Tasmania
Phone: 03 6266 4213
Mobile: 0419 341 906
Fax: 03 6266 4012
Mr. Tim Pak Poy
Phone: 02 9331 2325