I had only ever eaten improper truffle before this season (that is, flavoured truffle oil), but I have been making up for lost time. I had planned to make a rare restaurant visit for my birthday a few weeks ago, but Owen, I and our babysitter were all sick. The following weekend, I decided it would be wise to spend some money on a truffle as an alternative treat.
Black Perigord truffles are in season from late May to early August, although better from the middle part of that period because they need some decent frosts to mature. A co-op of local growers is selling local black truffles by the piece at the Farmer’s Market (Saturday mornings at the EPIC showgrounds in the north of Canberra). I got there early, but not horrifyingly so, and there was still plenty available. Considering that it was selling at $3000 a kilo, the upper end of the price for fresh Australian truffle, that might not be a big surprise.
That said, Reemski of I am Obsessed with Food found some fresh truffle in Sydney at $4896 a kilo. Simon Johnson stores are selling fresh truffle from Manjimup in WA at $2750 a kilo, but you need to pick it up from one of their stores; they recommend at least 15 grams per person. The info sheet handed out by the local co-op suggests a minimum entree serve per person of 3 grams, and a main course portion of 5 grams, but they’re restaurant portions, not homestyle ones. I bought 20 grams for $60, which came in a ziploc bag with a piece of kitchen paper.
The first thing I did was grab the jar of carnaroli rice I had ready, stuff the truffle in there and put some eggs from our hens on top to infuse for 48 hours. I’ve since found out that for optimal truffle love the jar should go in the fridge – even if it’s just rice and truffle – and there should be a peice of absorbent kitchen paper in there, replaced daily, to collect any moisture. Truffle, of course, being a fungus and no friend to moisture once harvested.
It was hard waiting, but I found opening the jar and regularly sniffing it helped. The scent was described to me by a friend last week as “like sex and puppies”. It’s a low, intensely savoury umami-ness – penetrating, earthy, full and deeply, deeply appealling. Even now, a couple of weeks later, I can still get a good snoutfull of the aroma from the rice.
Slicing truffle super thinly (or grating with a microplane) is wise because a greater surface is exposed to release the aroma. And truffles love fat, which helps the aroma linger. They are also great friends to eggs, mushrooms, pasta, risottos, chicken and the pale end of the root veg scale – see the local growers guide for more info.
Our first proper taste was truffled eggs for breakfast on the Monday morning. Mornings can be very long in this house, as we are usually woken very early by our youngest son and even though the Winter days are sunny and often quite pleasant, it’s uniformly dark and grimly mid-winterish at 5:30am . I don’t often make scrambled eggs and this time I did it in a bain marie, with just a spoonful of cream and the beaten eggs, and we ate it on some toasted sourdough.
Isn’t the colour amazing? We microplaned some truffle over the top – not a huge amount, less than one third of the truffle. One of the best things about eating truffle this way is that the shavings are right under your nose and the intensity of the aroma is very powerful. The dish is all about the texture of the egg and the aroma of the truffle – we agreed that you could not put too much truffle on scrambled egg.
The next dish I made was my masterchef fantasy soup using parsnip, celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes. It was very simple: sweat diced veg in butter and olive oil, add chicken stock and simmer, puree super fine, add a small amount of cream, season. I topped it with little truffle slivers and a drizzle of green new season local olive oil. It was great, but the truffle had by this time lost quite a lot of zing. It doesn’t have much to offer by way of texture, so to maximise the aroma (and value) it would be better to use it more quickly next time – even a couple of days makes a big difference. Owy didn’t love this, thinking that the subtlety of the truffle lost out to the Jerusalem artichoke.
I missed out on the final dish, a chicken and mushroom truffled pasta, which Owy made while I was down the coast for the weekend. He loved it, and is keen for a repeat. So am I.
I thought $60 was good value for the excitement and excellent meals we had with our truffle, and will certainly buy one again. Given the expense, I thought it might be a good idea to become a more savvy truffle purchaser so I found a particularly enjoyable way to find out more about them in a truffle and wine matching night at the local Mount Majura vineyard which happens to be a ten minute drive from home and next door to a trufferie. I wanted to get my snout into some really fresh truffle, so I could purchase more confidently, and to find out how I could take cooking with truffle it “to another level” with some good wine.
It was a little awkward arriving – on time, by myself – to find only two others there. But I was promptly handed a glass of the delicious 2008 Chardonnay which helped (they’d found out that week that the wine had acheived a gold medal at the 2009 Winewise Small Vignerons Awards). Gradually another twenty or so people arrived, most of whom seemed to know each other from the Canberra branch of Slow Food.
The evening began with a talk from Sherry McArdle-English, the owner of French Black Truffles of Canberra and a very charming and knowledgable presenter. She described the move to a farming life following her husband Gavan McArdle’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and the process of finding the perfect crop. The local climate (blisteringly hot in Summer, plenty of Winter frost) and the limestone soil was perfect for black truffles.
Sherry had brought with her a jar of truffles harvested that day – about 200 grams/$400 worth in this jar:
She suggested that those who were unfamiliar with truffle should briefly smell, pause and repeat the process twice – we are somewhat hardwired to the scents we know by adulthood, and learning a new one can be a challenge for our system. (I’ve heard a dragonfruit grower from NT describe a similar process with getting to love that fruit – now my older son’s favourite.)
The first course was truffled cambembert, which had been split horizontally and infused with three layers of fine truffle slices for 24 hours, and unrefrigerated for the last 4 hours or so. It was great, although it could easily have been infused for 48 hours. Given how fricking cold parts of my house are, I would happily leave it unrefrigerated the entire time, but you may live in the tropics, who knows.
With it we tasted more of the 2008 Chardonnay and the buttery, golden 2003 Chardonnay – the greater complexity and weight of which made it clearly the better match.
The next three courses were prepared by local French born and trained Eric Menard, a chef and pastry chef who runs the Le Petit Furneau patisserie in Chapman in Canberra’s south.
It was extremely pleasant and fitting to have a lovely Frenchman banging on about the joys of eating truffle on Bastille day, particularly given the calibre of the dishes he offered. The first was a “Robuchon style mashed potatoes with truffle” – that is, a very fluid, loose puree.
With it we tasted a 2008 Riesling and a 2008 Pinot Gris. I preferred the buttery, passionfruit flavours of the Pinot Gris as a stand alone flavour, but the Riesling was the winner with the dish.
And how good was it?
Thanks to the lovely Karen, who I met that evening, for snapping that photo. Karen is an ex-wine marketer (if I’d known you could do a degree in wine marketing I don’t think I would have gone to law school after all) and a thoroughly charming person. I was lucky to be seated near her and to get the benefit of hearing a much more educted palate than mine discussing in an analytical way how the wines worked with the dishes.
I would show you a picture of the next course, a pan seared pork fillet with mushroom and truffle jus, but we got over excited and I didn’t pick up the camera until this stage of things:
The pork dish was just UNBELIEVABLY GOOD. Like so many magnificent dishes in the French tradition, it began simply with a bucket of good butter and eschallots, followed with mushrooms and reducing stock to make an unctuous sauce that was totally plate-lick worthy. I admit to eyeing off the remaining sauce smear on the plate of the chap next to me. Thank goodness I managed to not just snatch it up. I wanted to.
The wines with the pork fillet were a 2008 Pinot Noir and the winery’s flagship, a Dinny’s Block from 2004 (Dinny Killen was the original owner of the vineyard). Delicous as the Cabernet franc (69%), Merlot (20%) and Cabernet sauvignon (11%) blend is – and it’s a wonderful, mouth-filling wine – the lighter more minerally Pinot sat better with the pork.
The final dish came with instructions – served in a wine glass, we were to stir before eating so that the layers of flavour would meld. It was a rice pudding heavy with a vanilla-y creme anglais, topped with acidic Granny Smith apples caramelised in butter (no sugar) and topped with truffle.
It was a brilliant presentation of Chef Menard’s proposition that truffle can work well in any type of dish that properly balances creaminess/fattiness and acidity. The wines – a 2008 Rose and Woolshed Creek Sticky – were lovely, but irrelevant. It needed no accompaniment.
Four tasting plates and eight tasting samples of wine cost me $50, which I thought was extremely good value. I was satisfied that the truffle I’d purchased at the markets was very fresh and a fair price. The just-harvested truffle from the neighbouring farm did smell a little different – more minerally, with almost a menthol, Eucalyptusy note. Julia, the vineyard’s knowledgable marketing person who had led the friendly discussion amongst the guests of their wine preferences with each dish, said that the vineyard’s new wines being launched at the end of the month (pdf) had a similar flavour profile – must be that terroir thing.
I know some people slag off Canberra, and to them I say – my birthday is in the middle of our local truffle season. Sucks to be not me.
(Or Cath from The Canberra Cook, who’s also been playing with truffles.)
“Understanding Truffles” at The Australian Truffle Grower’s Association stie is informative and has links to even more info.
McArdle’s truffles can be ordered through the Mart Deli at Fyshwick Markets. Order by Monday/Tuesday and pick up at the end of the week – 02 6295 3604.