"Lure of the truffle"

Truffle fungi have a complex relationship with tree hosts.
Sunday, 03 July 2016     

Dusty, one of the truffle dogs at Tarago Truffles

What has this gorgeous dog called Dusty got to do with truffles, you might ask? Well, in fact, she and her canine colleague, Utah, play a crucial role in the hunt for these exotic delicacies on a truffle farm, Tarago Truffles, an hour outside of Canberra. Rather than employing the far less manageable 'truffle pig' used in Europe, trained dogs are used in Australia to help find where the truffles are growing, via a sense of smell that seems nothing short of remarkable. There is currently a Truffle Festival going on in the Canberra region, and I headed there last weekend to take part in a truffle hunt and to learn more about the fascinating relationship between the truffle and its host trees.

Though truffles have a long history of cultivation in Europe - back to the time of the Ancient Greeks and Romans - the truffle industry is quite young in Australia. It has been embraced enthusiastically by farmers such as Denzil and Anne Sturgiss at Tarago, where the hot summer/cold winter climate is ideal for growing them. A truffle is a form of fungus: there are unicellular fungi such as yeasts and moulds, as well as multicellular fungi that produce fruiting forms such as mushrooms and truffles. Fungi comprise a separate 'kingdom' from plants and animals, but many fungi have important symbiotic relationships with plants, especially in the form of 'mycorrhizal symbiosis', where the fungus colonises the host plant's roots, in order to access nutrients from the plant. This relationship in turn has an extremely complex function and importance for the host plant's growth and survival in ways that are hard for us to fathom: for example, helping the plant itself to take up nutrients from the soil and be more resistant to diseases and toxins, and even facilitating the exchange of nutrients (and information!) between host plants.

The main truffle currently being grown in Australia is Tuber melanosporum, the French black truffle. It seems to grow best in association with the roots of oak (the English oak Quercus robur and the evergreen or holly oak Quercus ilex being favoured) and common hazelnut (Corylus avellana) trees. To establish a 'truffiere', a grove of trees inoculated with the truffle fungus is planted at the right density and in conducive conditions for the root zones of the trees to overlap, to create the optimum environment for the fungi to flourish. The soil needs to be free draining and with a fairly high pH level; irrigation is usually required so that the fungi prosper.

The truffles themselves can take a few years to develop. Seeking them out in the truffiere becomes the work of the truffle dog and its handler. On the day of our visit to the truffle farm, Dusty nonchalantly trotted through the trees and would suddenly stop and scrape at the ground. Matt, Dusty's owner/handler, who must have an incredible sense of smell himself, crouched down to sniff the spot that had been indicated, and if the odour of the truffle indicated it was ready for harvest, he would start to dig carefully with a spoon to unearth the truffle. We all had turns of sniffing the ground, and I have to confess I couldn't smell a thing!

A truffle is a strange and wonderful thing; looking somewhat like a compacted clod of earth, it can vary in size from the dimensions of a squash ball to that of an emu egg! When perfectly ripe, it is quite firm - if overripe, it can get squishy. Inside the truffle, there is a fascinating marbled appearance. The aroma of a fresh truffle is different to what I had expected, with my previous experience mainly limited to truffle oil out of a bottle. As Anne Sturgiss explained to us, commercial truffle oil is made out of a synthetic 'truffle aroma', which is not really like the scent of a fresh truffle at all. After our truffle hunt, we adjourned to the shearing shed for a lunch of delicious homemade soups with fresh truffle generously strewn across the surface, accompanied by bread spread with truffle butter.

We were later shown how truffles are cleaned and graded, and had the opportunity to purchase a truffle to take home. My truffle was divided into three and went back to different kitchens, where over the week it was used in risottos, truffle butter, truffled brie, truffled olive oil and even a vegan 'maca-phoney cheese'! Truffles contain glutamic acid, a flavour enhancer that will add that desirable 'umami' taste to many dishes.

The mysteries of what goes on underground between the truffle fungi and the intricate network of tree roots have piqued my curiosity about the enigmatic secret life and 'intelligence' of plants. I'll be investigating further!

 Reader Comments

1/6  Carolyn - 2125 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Sunday, 03 July 2016

Hi Deirdre - what an interesting blog! We had truffle oil in our omelette tonight and often use it in cooking. We"ll definitely have to try and get down to Canberra when the truffle season is on and take a visit to Tarago Truffles as it sounds like a lot of fun. Carolyn Thanks, Carolyn. It was a really fun day when we went! Deirdre

2/6  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 July 2016

Thank you for sharing your experience about the truffle. The truffle hunt sounded fun and most enjoyable. You always provide so much valuable information, in such a readable way. I have not tasted a truffle, its appearance doesn"t appear too attractive, but I know it is a popular (and expensive) ingredient, much prized in some cuisines. I enjoyed our truffle meals last week. I also found the whole culture of truffles fascinating and it has led me on to trying to understand much more about what goes on underground! Deirdre

3/6  Lynne - 2479 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 04 July 2016

Fascinating Deirdre. Thank you for enlightening me on the secret life of truffles. Now I know why my husband does not enjoy truffle oil - it is synthetically flavoured! Isn"t it great that Aussies are cultivating them now? I will look forward to your delve into the secret life of plants. I believe Beatrix Potter was one of the first people to discover the symbiotic relationship between some trees and fungus. She made some beautiful drawings of fungus too. Thanks, Lynne. I really hope to understand much better what goes on amidst the roots of plants! Yes, Beatrix Potter was very knowledgeable about fungi and wrote at least one scientific paper on the subject, which I think she hoped to present to the Royal Society. There is an excellent biography on her life written by Linda Lear. Deirdre

4/6  Maree - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 July 2016

Hi Deirdre Such interesting information about the truffle. I had eaten them in France and England and they were tasty.I was watching Monty Don in Gardeners World and he was putting Mycorrhizal fungi onto the rose"s roots when he was planting it bare rooted. It was very interesting and I am not sure we have access to this fungi so readily.I will await your further research eagerly. Maree I am really intrigued about the interrelationship between plants and fungi in the soil. I think if we use lots of compost in our soil, much microbial life exists naturally which aids plants in the ways that the truffle fungi interacts with the oak and hazelnut trees. There is so much to find about this amazing subject! Deirdre

5/6  Margaret - 3002 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 04 July 2016

Hello Deirdre. Thanks for your general garden info. I always find it interesting. The truffle info was wonderful and a great read. I believe there is a farm somewhere around the Yarra Ranges out of Melbourne too. Let"s hope they have great success. Thanks again. Margaret Thanks, Margaret. Truffle farming seems to be on the increase and I hope these enterprises take off; it is so nice to see these small businesses succeed in such an unusual niche. Deirdre

6/6  Carole - 2230 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 05 July 2016

Thank you Deidre, love your truffle experience account. While I have been intrigued by truffles I have not yet had an experience. Came back with truffle oil from an NZ but it mysteriously disappeared. Last week a big WOW! Aldi had bottled truffles for sale, I bought 2 bottles with small truffles the size of nutmeg. Now I am looking for recipes so that I can finally experience the flavour of a real truffle. So far, I have discovered that bottled truffles do not taste like real truffles :-( Yes from my recent experience, the flavour of the actual truffle is more subtle than the taste I was used to from truffle oil. I did infuse some olive oil with some pieces from my truffle, and it is delicious; but does not have a long shelf life, I gather. I shaved truffle over a mushroom risotto, made truffle butter, had truffle shaved over scrambled eggs, and it is also good with pasta. Hope you enjoy your truffle. Deirdre

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