What are truffles?
The truffle is an edible fungus that grows underground through a symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific host trees. When the tree and the fungal filaments reach maturity, usually after about five years, the fruiting body or truffle is produced and occurs seasonally thereafter.
Truffles can be described as ‘gourmet mushrooms’. They have a pungent, intense, earthy fragrance and lend a unique flavour and aroma to food. The truffle is used in extremely small quantities and yet its flavour and aroma turn a standard offering of soup, chicken, meat or game into a gourmet experience.
Outside of Europe, the first black truffles were produced in 1991 on specially inoculated oak trees in Oregon, USA. There have now been substantial plantings in the USA including a 70-hectare trufferie established near Houston Texas in 1991.
In the southern hemisphere, the winter of 1993 saw the first production of commercial truffles in New Zealand, and in 1999 black truffles were produced in Tasmania to further confirm their production feasibility in the southern hemisphere.
The first truffles produced in the Manjimup region occurred in August 2003 at the Hazel Hill trufferie some 3 kilometres from the Oak Valley plantings.
What is a black truffle?
The black truffle is not sought after because of its appearance! While it is generally round it shape, it can have many differently shaped “knobs” and “crevices”. The size can range from that of a marble, to almost the size of a soccer ball. The most desired truffles are those that range from a golf ball to tennis ball size. This would translate to between 25 and 200 grams weight. “Icon” sized truffles (more than 500 grams) are highly sought after and premium prices are paid for top quality specimens.
The ripe truffle, when cut, exhibits a dense black interior that is streaked with white veins. The truffle is firm and resembles the texture of a potato. The outside has a fairly tough, scaly skin that can withstand the conditions in which the truffle grows.
In the end, you must find a quality restaurant and chef and try these for yourself.
Cultivating Truffles: How do they grow?
The fungus attaches to the fine roots of oak and hazelnut trees and has a very fine root structure of its own called “mycelium”. The fungus and the tree live in what is called a “symbiotic relationship” where they assist each other to survive and prosper.
The tree will provide necessary carbohydrate (sugars) for the fungus while the fungus will give back essential micro nutrients, which it extracts from the soil that the tree cannot access.
The truffle is the fruit body of the fungus. The truffle is “seeded” in spring and will increase in size through summer and autumn and then ripen when the chill of winter sets in.
Truffles ripen and are harvested during the winter months. In the southern hemisphere, this is during the months of June, July and August. Finding the ripe truffle is a specialist job that has evolved from pigs that would root them out to eat, to highly trained dogs. The dogs locate the subterranean prize with their heightened sense of smell, mark the spot with a scratch of their paw, and then sit to receive their reward. It is an amazing experience to see the dogs pick up the scent of a ripe truffle some 30 metres away, and then focus in on the prize find.
Once a truffle is located, the spot is marked and the hunt continues. After about an hour, the dog becomes tired and is rested while the dog handler retraces the hunt path and excavates the located truffles.
The truffles are then washed, sorted, and graded. Grading will account for factors such as smell, size, shape, and feel of the truffle. During the grading process, the truffle will be “nicked” or a small amount removed to allow the interior to be observed for colour. This also allows the buyer to see the truffle.
Once sorted and cleaned, the truffles are then packed to order and prepared for shipment in specially designed and insulated containers with refrigerated cooling blocks.
Packing and Transport:
At harvest, the truffles are graded into three classes according to European standards, Extra class (premium), 1st and 2nd Class. Once harvested the truffles are carefully cleaned, washed and sealed with an Argon/Nitrogen gas mix (This gas mix reduces oxidation and breakdown of the truffle, packed with ice packs and shipped in an icebox directly to your customs agent anywhere in the world. The packed truffles, should reach any airport around the world within 36 hours of leaving the farm gate, ensuring your truffles are the freshest possible upon arrival.
Storing Fresh Truffles:
Enjoying black truffles within 5-7 days of unearthing them is the very best way to experience truffles.
To help keep them longer, they can be gently wrapped in absorbent paper and stored in a dry, airtight glass or plastic container in the crisper compartment (not the cold part) of the refrigerator. The absorbent paper should be changed daily and the container must be kept dry. Bare in mind that the strong aroma of truffles will impregnate other foods, this can be advantageous, but to avoid this ensure that the truffles are stored in their own container. In cooler months the truffle can be stored out of the refrigerator in its container out of sunlight. The ideal temperature for storing truffles is between 4 and 8 °C.