Whether you are truffle hunting in Tuscany or Western Australia, arm yourself with patience and an appetite
I am a truffle addict. I am not apologetic about the fact. In the world of gastronomy, the truffle stands alongside other exorbitantly-priced delicacies like caviar, foie gras and bird’s nest, with one main difference. It is vegetarian and hurts nobody. It has a huge fan following and can be an expensive addiction. Prices vary according to the availability.
This year, for example, where snow hit even sunny Tuscany and Umbria — truffles are usually found here 11 months of the year — the prices sky-rocketed because the hunters simply couldn’t get to their bounty. The prized and highly aromatic black winter truffle found in Umbria, southern Tuscany and Perigord costs around 1,200 euros a kilo right now, which means that something the size of a ping pong ball could be around 300 euros. This will double by the time it reaches a restaurant in Rome or Venice, and could sell for three or four times that in NYC.
The white and more delicately perfumed white winter truffle from Alba is even more expensive and sought after, because it is only found in the hills of Piedmont and no one the world over has been able to cultivate or farm them. Like all addictions, it’s hard to say why and what all the fuss is about, except that it is a contagious passion.
Chefs are another brotherhood who are completely hooked. The black truffle, they say, smells like sex, while the white is said to have an aroma which is a combination of newly-ploughed soil and the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs! The chef who has really put truffles on the gourmet food map must be Daniel Boulud. He has several fine-dining restaurants across the US, but rose to fame internationally for his creation, the DB burger, served at DB Bistro Moderne in New York. This contains short rib of beef, foie gras and black truffle. At $31 a pop, it’s an affordable decadent treat.
Looking Down Under
With all this demand, black truffles are now farmed in places like Australia and even China; anything to catch the big bucks bandwagon. I don’t know the Croatian truffles at all, but they don’t seem to be as sought-after as their Italian and French brothers… yet. Intrigued by the Western Australian black truffle, I trekked a couple of years ago to the village of Mundaring, which was all in a tizzy in the month of July — they were hosting a weekend truffle festival. Remember, July is winter Down Under. This is when truffles are not available in most of Europe.
I was lucky enough to be invited to see the truffle farms of Oak Valley, the largest and most significant player in Western Australia. They inoculate the roots of young oak trees with the fungus spores, and in a few years, under the right outdoor conditions, you have little truffles.
How do these truffles compare with European truffles? Like anything that is farmed, there is going to be a difference. If anything, the farmed ones are more subtle and delicate in flavour and aroma. A few years ago, I tasted wild Indian truffles found by chance in the forests of Chikmagalur, in Abhijit Saha’s restaurant Caperberry in Bengaluru. They were black, delicately perfumed and not bad at all.
All year in Tuscany
I recently made a trip to southern Tuscany in winter to experience hunting for wild truffles. A little-known fact is that truffles are available almost all year round in Tuscany. My truffle hunter, Paolini, was accompanied by his two trained dogs. At 85 years old, he was an old hand at this. The dogs were already quite excited. I expect they had been set loose to sniff much before we arrived. We spent a couple of hours in wellington boots, wandering through a forest, following the dogs carefully. If they spent more than a couple of minutes in one place, that was the indication that they had found something. Paolini then pulled the dogs away and dug the surface himself with his hands to remove the precious black knob.
I also discovered some amazing truffle products in Tuscany — truffle butter, truffle salsa and truffle honey made by a company called Boscovivo. These should be available in India by the end of the year. For the lay person about to embark on a journey into truffle gastronomy, this is a much easier and more affordable way to discover and to understand the world of truffles.
Boscovivo conducts truffle tours called ‘Snuffle and Truffle’ (100 euros) which last a whole morning. It includes a quick truffle hunt, a cookery demo and a three-course lunch using all the products. For a more luxurious experience, Silvia Baracchi, a Michelin-star chef, conducts truffle cookery classes and serves a sumptuous lunch thereafter in the Orangery at Il Falconiere, the amazingly beautiful Baracchi family estate near Cortona (the village Frances Mayes lives in and talks about in her autobiographical novel Under the Tuscan Sun).
Whatever your eventual opinion about the truffle, like all good things in life, it is something you must experience at least once… on eggs, cream sauces, risotto and even in a dessert!
In Australia, the three areas identified as optimum for truffle farming are Tasmania, the Adelaide hills and Manjimup in Western Australia. In Manjimup alone there are three major players (Oak Valley Truffles, The Truffle & Wine Co and Al Blakers). I was lucky enough to be invited to see the truffle farms of Oak Valley, the largest and most significant. Together with the other two producers, they are reported to have gathered around 5 tonnes that season and are hoping to double every year. While European truffles are traditionally used in eggs and with beef and patés (comfort food with fat or butter), WA truffles, with their milder aroma, pair very well with even seafood and desserts.
Published as seen and written for The Hindu.