Truffles are in fact a mushroom that has decided to grow underground. They are a fungi but unlike the mushrooms that grow above ground and spread their spores on the wind to propagate, they have evolved to keep the spores inside a protective skin and depend on animals to dig them up and spread them around. To make that happen they need to have a strong scent that passes through the soil when they are ripe in winter, so that they are dug up, eaten and scattered in droppings (poo). Wild pigs and other forest animals love them.That pungent smell and seductive taste is attractive to us humans too, so we hunt and dig them up as well. And we have done that for thousands of years.Truffles have fallen in and out of favour over the centuries, even being banned by the Catholic Church who thought that because they tasted good they must be sinful and besides they were black (clearly evil) and no-one knew how they were formed (so must have been made by the devil). Pasta must have got boring without them so they were added back to the approved menu. There are references in the Bible and the Koran as truffles being food of the desert and we think they are almost certainly the ‘manna’ that kept biblical travellers alive.There’s a good introduction to all that history in this downloadable PDF document here. Feel free to use it.
The two most prized varieties of culinary truffle are the large white Tuber magnatum – above left, which doesn’t grow in Australia, and resists attempts at commercial growing both in Australia and in Europe. It is only found in a belt defined as ‘Meditteranean’ in the wild but shows signs of some expanding its area of growth – or we’re just looking harder. The other (above right) is the black winter truffle Tuber melanosporum . There are other varieties that grow wild in Europe and North America but more of that below.
You wouldn’t confuse them if you saw them but we often see prices for the European white truffle mistakenly used to value our local black (and the little white varieties). $5-6000 a kilo was the imported price restaurants paid for the large white Tuber magnatum over the last two seasons. In Australia, black truffle reached a top price of $2000 a kilo, slightly more when sold direct to retail in small quantities.
You can see they do look different but when a journalist/editor (or restaurant advertising agency) heads for a stock shot from the image library to illustrate a local black truffle story or a menu item, they rarely have Australian images and we’ve seen some really embarrassing mix-ups. Even when we point out the mistake and say that it is not what our truffle would look like!, the blunders remain on publication websites to compound the problem for your research.
FRESH FROZEN OR CANNED
So you need to be careful with that quick web search. People who know about truffles just scoff, but most of the reading public don’t know enough about them yet so they are looking at your story as authoritative.
We do have some stock library images you can use, or at least to check your other sources against. Just ask. If you have worked with a photographer to produce a story, and a grower has explained all this to you, you’ll be ok. Just check the art director/sub-editor’s captions.
Fresh if you can get them. Always. Even chilled and sealed wrapped in paper in a jar, their flavour will decline after ten days or so, and lose weight from drying out. If quick frozen, black truffles can keep well under refrigeration with an inevitable decline in flavour ( you just need to use a bit more). As they go soft and squishy when defrosted, they are usually used while frozen and chopped or grated. Recent seasons in Australia haven’t produced a surplus that can be frozen and it has been hard to get them. Some restaurants freeze their own to extend their truffle menu.
You will see some dried product, pressure packed often with risotto rice, but as the natural aroma is driven off with heat it is more for appearance. In Europe canned truffle pieces and especially the juice are a staple restaurant item. Some chefs prefer the ‘pressure cooked’ taste and it is a stable year-round, food safe option when fresh truffle is not available.
That very phallic object is a truffle being born C1600
Since no-one could see or understand how truffles grew and the earth was ‘scorched’ around tree roots that they were found near, the theory developed that they were formed by lightning. Summer thunderstorms were long considered essential to growing them but it seems that this was more climatic than an ‘electric magic’. Truffles like a Mediterranean climate. Warm to hot summers, lots of summer rain and then cold winters.
Take away any of those factors, (and the high pH limestone soils they need to fruit) and they just stop or won’t grow. Which is what is happening in Europe where wild harvested truffles have been declining in quantity for twenty years. Climate change, environment change – as forests are no longer harvested and thinned and canopies close up, stopping the sunlight reaching and warming the soil, are all factors. This prompted experiments to dig up and plant-out small seedling trees that they hoped the truffle growing on the roots. Eventually the process of using spores and inoculating the soil and roots of (mostly) oak and hazel nut seedlings was perfected, and now cultivated truffle has filled the demand from declining wild harvests.
FARMED TRUFFLE OUR SEASONAL ADVANTAGE
While there are edible truffle varieties that grow almost all year round, the season for culinary quality black and white truffles is in Winter. In the EU there is even a prescribed ‘best-by’ season and a cut-off to protect buyers from early or late quality differences and to contain over-harvesting in the wild.
Because our winter growing season is during the northern hemisphere summer, our growers saw an opportunity to export to those markets without competition (or presenting our fresh truffle against the frozen or canned truffles they would normally use). The unique advantage of exporting truffles is their high value per kg weight. They travel well by chilled airfreight, and Australian truffles can be on tables in Europe (or USA and Asia) in just days.
The Southern Hemisphere seasonal advantage also applies to South Africa and South America, who are planting as fast as they can and will be a challenge to our market advantage. Given the long(ish) lead time from planting to maturity, we have less than ten years to consolidate distribution and prove to the world that we have a premium product with consistent high quality standards.
ITS ALL BLACK WHITE
It was the black winter truffle, Tuber melanosporum, also called the Perigord truffle or French black truffle that was the first to be successfully farmed. It happened first in France and then in Italy, Spain, New Zealand, and now Australia. It’s the most cultivated variety because of it’s mellow flavour, and compared to white truffle that is almost always served shaved raw over a dish, allows some flexibility because it retains flavour in cooking. It also has a stable market value in Europe for processing into pressure cooked truffle juice and pastes. The fresh price paid there, like here, changes with seasonal availability and demand. The Australian growers are producing more than we can consume locally in our winter and are aggressively chasing export markets in Europe, America and Asia. The quality of our produce is highly regarded overseas.