Connoisseur’s Guide to Australian Truffles

Written by Aksel Ritenis

Written by Karen Anand
Correspondent for Connoisseur magazine

In January, amongst the blustery winds and clipped grape vines of a village called Richerenches, north east of Orange in Provence, the French gather to celebrate the truffle by having an annual “messe des truffes”, or truffle mass. This is done, for total credibility, under the patronage of Saint Antoine, at which thanks are given for the aromatic, expensive black truffle and the devout are rewarded with a truffle lunch after the service.

Not only is the size, weight, smell and price of the tuber discussed but conversation stretches to how best to make omelette aux truffes, a slightly running, perfectly fluffy truffle omelet, yellow with farm fresh eggs and generously speckled with black slivers of truffle. What is the correct recipe? When to add the eggs and the butter? What kind of pan to use, cast iron or copper with a lining or (heavens forbid) non stick! The mass, needless to say, is very well attended. The French incidentally also believe that “la truffe rend les femmes plus gentilles et les homes plus gallants”, it makes women kinder and men more gallant. In July, in a village called Mundaring, about half an hour from Perth in Western Australia, much the same thing happens, without the religious pretext but with much the same spiritual vigour!

The Aussies are organized and down to earth – so a tiny village pays host in their winter (usually a sunny couple of days in the last week of July) to about 25,000 people who pay a pittance of an entrance fee to be exposed to the world’s most coveted gourmet ingredient. There are Master classes using truffles by Australia’s top chefs, wine pavilions, stalls selling truffles and truffle products from Manjimup where the fungus is actually grown and plenty of gastronomy… enough to take anyone’s breath away. The driving force behind the festival which is now in its sixth year, is the internationally awarded French Chef and Impressario Alain Fabrègues who owns and runs the very successful restaurant The Loose Box in the village as well as the newly opened Bistro des Artistes in Perth. He is not only passionate about this gourmet delicacy, once considered the domain of the French and Italians, but is committed to promoting Western Australian truffles.

Truffles were introduced to Australia more than a decade ago. The three areas which were identified as optimum for truffle farming were Tasmania, the Adelaide hills and Manjimup in Western Australia. The first two have not taken off as truffle farming in Manjimup has done, probably because this requires dedicated processes, steady investment and a huge amount of patience. In Manjimup alone there are three major players (Oak Valley, The Wine and Truffle Company and Al Blaker). Oak Valley is the largest plantation owned by a small group of people of which Wally Edwards (now chairman of Australian Cricket and a businessman in his own right), Geoff Barrett (chairman of Oak Valley and owner of Watershed Winery in nearby Margaret River) and a scientist who has pioneered the growth of farmed truffles in Australia, Nick Malajczuk, are the core. Several thousands of hectares are under plantation at Oak Valley. Together with the other two producers they are reported to have gathered around 5 tons this season and are hoping to double that next year which will account for 10per cent of world production. Plans are ambitious and based on the current growth, Wally Edwards is confident of WA being able to produce 50% of the world’s production in 10 years time! The fuss is all about demand. Truffles need a certain climate which is similar to the Périgord, the main truffle region of France – cool wet winters and warm summers. Truffle quality is not dependant on ‘terroir” as much as weather and the PH balance of the soil, says Wally. According to Alain Fabrègues, a truffle quality in a restaurant is also dependent on whether it is under ripe, over ripe or found at the perfect time. This is all achieved by trainers and their highly skilled team of dogs. The beauty of growing them down under is two- fold: they are harvested from June to August when fresh European truffles are not available, and since they are farmed and clearly farmed efficiently, they are only going to grow in number whereas European truffles found mainly wild in established forests, are on the decline. Manjimup truffles are already exported around the world especially to Europe, the US and Japan.

There are a few types of truffle in the world – the prized one is the tuber melanosporum, this is the true truffle of Perigord and is black with a network of pale fine veins running through it. Its intense aroma develops fully only when cooked. The Manjimup truffle from WA is the same variety but interestingly has developed as a milder aromatic version. Black truffles grow symbiotically with the roots of oak and hazelnut trees. The tuber magnatum is the white truffle of Piedmont, in northern Italy and is used mainly shaved fresh on top of dishes such as risotto and pasta. The shavings of smaller and less aromatic specimens are used in truffle products like truffle salsa (truffles mixed with a paste of either olives, mushrooms or aubergine), truffle oil (which does have some truffle but is also perfumed with a nature identical truffle flavor as well), truffle salt and new in Australia truffle dressings , truffle perlage ( a product of molecular gastronomy where little black eggs which look like caviar are created from truffle water and oil) and readymade truffle butter. For the lay person about to embark on a journey into truffle gastronomy, the products are all accessible and reasonably priced. This is a much easier and more approachable way to discover and to understand whether you actually like truffle or not without embarking on the real thing.

How do these truffles compare with European truffles? Like anything that is wild and farmed, there is going to be a difference. To my mind, truffle is all about aroma and less about taste. This is unusual in the world of gastronomy. The Australian specimen is generally larger than its French or Italian counterpart. When fresh, the aroma is as heady as anything I have experienced in Europe. However, this does tend to die down by the time it is shaved on a dish in a restaurant. What you may lose in intoxicating headiness though, you gain in versatility. While European truffles are traditionally used in or on eggs, cream sauces, risotto and with beef and patés – comfort food and warming winter dishes, WA truffles because of their milder aroma and flavor, pair very well with even seafood and desserts! In Europe truffles are never used with anything citrus or with garlic. In WA, as long as the citrus dish is light, chefs take liberties and are more flexible in their approach to cooking with them. I had a terrific dessert prepared by chef Emmanuel Mollois at a Masterclass at the Mundaring festival – an apple dome with a truffle custard topped with truffle cream. Similarly, Alain Fabrègues prepared one of his signature dishes of roasted scallops with fresh truffles on a bed of creamed leeks and a citrus emulsion. This would be a marriage headed for divorce in France but worked beautifully here.

Demand grossly outstrips supply mostly from the world’s fine dining restaurants, who pay anything from $ 1500 to 2500 a kilo for WA truffles. I had a degustation truffle menu at the newly opened Nobu at Crown Metropol in Perth where Nobu has used Manjimup truffles on pan seared scallops with a black truffle snow (tapioca flour which is dried and mixed with fresh truffle), a delicious truffle miso cappuccino and his signature wagyu steak with a sauce of yuzu black truffle teriyaki. Interesting to note that he pairs the salty umami flavors of miso and citrus with truffle. I also saw WA truffles recently on a Daniel Boulud menu in NYC.

Much mystique and secrecy surrounds the phenomena of the “truffle’ in France. Families often do not reveal where in the forest they have found their prize and wealthy producers often electric fence their farms to discourage any poaching. The Manjimup brigade are proud of what they have achieved and happy to share their story and Mundaring are now on the map to share the booty.

Written by Karen Anand

Correspondent for Connoisseur magazine

Karen Anand is a food consultant, writer and businesswoman. Her career infood includes a successful catering company, Mumbai’s first gourmet food shop,a gourmet academy, and the ‘Karen Anand’ brand of food products. She hascontributed food columns to the Times of India, Elle, Mint, Man’s World, Verveand Pune Times. Karen has several cookery books and three successful food shows(on Star World, CNBC and Star One) under her belt, and was recently awardedthe prestigious Food & Spirit Award by the French government for her work inpromoting French food and wine. She also authors the yearly Pune city Times Food Guide.

Image Credits:

Truffles – Oak valley – image by Tamika Dietos

Hand Holding Truffle – Image by Paul Kelly

Truffle Dog Handler – Oak Valley – image by Tamika Deitos

The Mundaring Truffle Festival (incl. Menu, Chefs, and Tart) by Paul Kelly

Truffle Dog Handler – Oak Valley – image by Tamika Deitos

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Aksel Ritenis

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