TRUFFLE FEVER

Truffle butter under the breast skin, grated truffle added during cooking.

Truffle butter under the breast skin, grated truffle added during cooking.

One wintery evening in Canberra, I tried a beer brewed with truffles and spices. It tasted like a gorgeous big slice of Christmas cake but, amid the other flavours, I couldn’t find the truffles.

But, up to then, I had never tasted the mysterious fungus. Of course, I had been reading about it for years. But no description was able to convey to me what truffles smelled like, or what they tasted like. Ultimately, language—no matter how subtle and dexterous—cannot capture an experience accurately enough to allow someone else to live it.

So, during winter 2013, I went on-line and ordered a truffle.  Yes, it was expensive, but when compared to a truffle dinner at a restaurant, it was affordable.

The Canberra truffle season had finished so my truffle came from Tasmania. With a long weekend approaching, the man at the company that dispatched the truffle called me to make sure that I would be home to receive it. He didn’t want it to lose freshness sitting around in some post office somewhere.

Freshness is important with truffles; he told me that it had been dug up specifically to fill my order. In fact, he said he could tell me the name of the dog that found it, out in the field. I laughed, but afterwards wished I had asked.

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The package arrived, square and wrapped in brown paper. Inside was a Styrofoam cube. Inside that, bubble wrap and a squat glass bottle nestled in small plastic-enclosed frozen blocks—to help it keep fresh, of course.

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Beneath the lid of the bottle, paper towel swaddled something. Even unwrapping the object was a ritual that required reverence and patience.

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Finally: the truffle, 31 grams of it, rounded, black/brown, with a bumpy surface like the skin of an avocado.

It was profoundly un-glamourous. Author Diane Ackerman says it is the “world’s homeliest vegetable” (p. 161), while Waverly Root writes that Pliny believed truffles to be “lumps of earthy substance balled together” (p. 286). Honestly, if you saw it lying on the ground, you would make sure you didn’t step in it.

And what did it smell like?

“Fat Lady” Clarissa Dickson Wright describes the smell as “old socks or doormice” (p. 265). Ackerman quotes an unnamed writer who says the aroma is like “the muskiness of a rumpled bed after an afternoon of love in the tropics”. She also mentions that “truffles contain twice as much androstenol, a male pig hormone, as would normally appear in a male pig” (162)—although scientists have now established that this is not what attracts female pigs to dig for the fungi (Renowden, p. 24).

Waverly Root writes about the power of truffle’s ungodly associations:

To this day there are Spaniards who believe that the truffle is a product of the Devil, partly perhaps because the ground where it is found often presents a devastated appearance, as though it had been scorched by infernal fires […] A French writer advised anyone who discovered that he was traversing truffle territory at night to cross himself quickly three times for protection. (286)

So, especially given its reputation as devilish, and an aphrodisiac as well, I was expecting something funky-sexy, or at least piggy.

But my first impression was: Vegemite.

It smelled intense and pervasive and savoury; it was deep, but with a sharp edge like dark rum or even power alcohol.

That might sound strange, but there is a personal logic to it. When I was a child in North Queensland, my father worked in a plant that made power alcohol from sugarcane crushings. I sometimes went along with him when he went to the plant on weekends, so I know the fermenty-molassy smell. Kraft also had an associated factory alongside, growing yeast for Vegemite. See, it all comes together.

And there is another, less personal, connection. Yeast, after all, is a fungus, just like truffles, even though they are at opposite ends of the luxury spectrum. It’s not strange, then, that they might have some similarity.

I placed the truffle in a sealed container with Arborio rice and then added two eggs (still in their shells). For the next week, the smell permeated every corner of the fridge, and every time the fridge door opened, the smell escaped into the kitchen.

This wafting odour was different. It smelled alive—not at all piggish, but something strongly muscular that at the same time reserved its vitality. And strangely, there was something friendly about the smell. It became a kitchen companion.

Inside the truffle was an intricate pattern of pale veins, almost like the vesicles inside kidneys. Its similarity to animal organs stopped me, just momentarily, but I still needed to know: what does it taste like?

The internet told me that truffles “love” fat, and I went from there, making roast chicken with truffle butter under the breast skin and grating more onto the bird while it cooked.

On another day, there was mushroom risotto made with the rice that had co-habited with the truffle in the refrigerator. I also made pasta with mushrooms, zucchini and peas, with truffle grated over it. And I scrambled the eggs from the rice-and-truffles container.

Of them all, the scrambled eggs were best, their velvety texture somehow supporting the gentleness of the taste much better than the falling-apart fibres of roast chicken flesh or the al-dente beads of risotto—delicious though they were.

As it turned out, the truffles didn’t taste like Vegemite, nor like pig, nor like mushrooms. I had expected a big flavour, to go with the expansiveness of the smell and, I suppose, because some other luxury foods—caviar, for example—have strong flavours. But the truffle was delicate, recessive, refined.

Then I read Gareth Renowden’s comments in The Truffle Book. The aroma of black truffles is “a very intense mushroom smell overlaid with other notes, especially with what wine tasters call ‘forest floor’.” (There is an image of a newly developed “truffle aroma wheel” shown in his blog.) While that’s not how the smell struck me, his description of its flavour exactly corresponds to my experience. The truffle, he says:

co-operates with the flavours in the food, enhancing and intensifying them. A steak with truffle sauce becomes more eaty, eggs are transformed into a gourmet item, and every aspect of the meal becomes more satisfying. (p. 24)

This explains why the flavour was so quiet and restrained. And it also suggests it is a food experience like no other—coming on strong and intimate and alive, then transforming into something teasingly elusive.

Yes, I would like more. Much more.

Post Script: I found more truffles and the world’s best toasted sandwich at the Ash Street Cellar in Sydney: truffle, gruyere and jamon. It was rich and melty and crispy. But I still couldn’t say, “That’s the truffle flavour!”

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Try This:

• The annual Canberra Truffle Festival is currently happening, with cooking classes, dinners, truffle hunts, and other events. There is even a ceremony to bless the truffle dogs!

• For information on how truffles grow, plus recipes, check out the Perigord Truffles of Tasmania website.

This is Gareth Renowden’s blog. He grows truffles and wine in New Zealand:

• You can check out the truffle aroma wheel on Renowden’s blog, or on this ABC site.

• Saveur is a beautiful up-market food magazine from the United States. They have quite a number of truffle recipes.

• This extract from MFK Fisher’s 1937 book, Serve It Forth, tells a possibly-true story about harvesting truffles. For an innocent child, the event combined truffles with a range of dangerous associations: secrets, sex, superstition, and even madness. She writes:

People tell me that only virgins have the true nose for truffle-hunting: virgin sows, virgin bitches. I cannot vouch for this, as I have never hunted truffles—but I do know a man who once saw the last human hunter in all the Périgord country.

[…] Franz Mayen, very sardonic and entertaining, peered at us and talked ceaselessly, as always.

“Yes,” he was saying, “I have seen the last virgin woman truffle-hunter in all France! I am probably—no, certainly—unique, for I was but five or six when it happened, and a little boy among old men. It was a secret hunt—“

“By moonlight, of course?” one of us enquired, smoothly.

“Ah no!” Mayen was unruffled as a bowl of cream. “Naturally it was held in the white sunlight of the south—a van Gogh sun, a French Midi sun. And we had gathered secretly because the Church was opposed to women truffle-hunters. The idea of an old virgin sniffing over the hills, with a pack of men hot at her heels—it is disgusting to the Church, it is—you understand me?—pagan.”

“So this was to be the last hunt, with the only woman left alive who had the truffle nose. She was old, very old, and she was—yes, unquestionably—she was a virgin! And, mon Dieu, mon Dieu, but what a nose! It was long, most pointed, red at the tip. It quivered.

“We started off at a hill far from the church, I lagged behind on my little legs, but very curious. We walked until I was panting.

“The old maid went ahead. Finally she stopped. She lifted her formidable nose, red and quivering, into the hot air. We all watched.

“Then she was off, and it was hard to follow her, I can tell you. She ran like a demented soul straight through the underbrush, over ditches, up a steep hill. Then she stopped, in a barren clearing around an old oak tree.

“She pointed to the ground at her feet. The men dug with their blunt forks. Sure enough, truffles! She started away, stopped suddenly and pointed down. More truffles! And all the time she was trembling and sniffing like a sick dog.

“Finally she stood still, and her nose grew pale. She stopped shivering, and looked very old and weary. The hunt was over.

“When we got home, the best truffles were sent to Lyons, and the rest we chopped up and cooked with eggs into a kind of omelette.”

Mayen pulled at his cigarette, and added disgustedly: “Of course it is too bad! My one chance to eat enough truffles to see if they are really exciting—and I was only six!” (pp. 48-50)

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Resources
d
Diane Ackerman, 1990, A Natural History of the Senses, New York: Vintage/Random House.
d
MFK Fisher, 1983, “I Arise Resigned”, in Serve It Forth (first pub. 1937), republished in The Art of Eating, London: Pan/Picador.  
d
Gareth Renowden, 2005, The Truffle Book, Amberley, NZ: Limestone Hills Publishing.
d
Waverly Root, excerpt from Food (first pub. 1980), pp. 283-294, in Choice Cuts: A Selection of Food Writing from around the World and throughout History, ed. Mark Kurlansky, 2002, London: Jonathon Cape/Random House.
d
Clarissa Dickson Wright, 1999, Food: What We Eat and How We Eat, London: Random House/Edbury Press.
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