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About Truffles

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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.

Where do they occur?

Truffles occur naturally in the northern hemisphere where there are over 70 species that have been taxonomically described. The black truffle or Tuber Melanosporum, also known as the Perigord truffle, grows mainly in France and Italy and is the variety most commonly cultivated in a truffle orchard or trufferie. With a unique scent, they our sniffed out by trained pigs and dogs.

Truffles in Europe occur under their native woodland trees of oak, poplar, willow and hazelnut. In the regions of France and Italy where truffles occur naturally the truffle harvests are decreasing over time. It is thought that this is due to urbanisation, climate change and pollution. For example, prior to 1914 some 1800 tonnes of truffles were harvested annually in the Perigord area alone. Now the whole of France produces less than 50 tonnes. In 1998 annual production was reported to be only 8 tonnes.

In the 1970's a major initiative began in France to cultivate truffles. There are now also established trufferies in Spain and Italy. However productivity from these orchards is relatively small compared to that collected in the natural forests.

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.

What does a black truffle smell or taste like?

It is not easy to describe the flavour and aroma of the black truffle. It is appealing and earthy.

Some descriptions of the flavour and smell are: -

•    The floor of the forest.
•    Scallops and seafood.
•    A mixture of chocolate and earth.
•    Old over-used socks!
•    A rugby locker room after a match!

Some adjectives are: -

•    Erotic
•    Earthy
•    Exquisite
•    Smouldering
•    Sexy

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.

At Oak Valley, oak and hazelnut trees inoculated with the French black truffle have been planted. The plantings will total some 75 hectares or 37,500 trees when fully planted.

Harvesting truffles:

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 30metres 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.

Why are truffles expensive?

The truffle is highly sought after by quality restaurants and gourmands and is best when fresh. The odour and taste are unique and intoxicating.

The price of truffles is determined by their scarcity and demand. They say France used to produce more than 1800 tonnes of truffle prior to World War I. Now the production of the whole of Europe is les than 50 tonne and in poor years less than 10 tonne. Production is decreasing whilst demand is increasing.