History & Mystery
Of all ingredients used by chefs, none share the unique attributes, mystique, history and folklore of French Black and Italian White truffles. Some quick research into the world of truffle, both factual and anecdotal, makes for nothing less than fascinating and entertaining reading.
This commodity, deemed so valuable and yet invariably so scarce, has inevitably forged a legend of celebration, festivity and of course skulduggery, including stories of murder, poaching and black markets.
Stories date back centuries of truffles quite different from those we savour today. From ancient Greece through to the Roman Empire and beyond, truffles were revered by rulers as an aphrodisiac of great power. In Medieval times consumption of truffle was largely prohibited and deemed unsavoury by the ruling religions of the time, to later re-emerge as a highly prized delicacy of the aristocracy in the era of the Renaissance in France and Italy.
For a time in the early 1900's in south west France, black truffle was relevantly abundant due to re-establishment of wild oak forests and plantings on large areas of land previously used for ill-fated grape vines. Following the First World War however, the landscape and its agricultural use changed along with the activities of farmers and so began the decline of the natural truffle forests; from yields of between 700 - 1000 tonnes at their peak to 10 - 15 tonnes in an average season in recent times.
Despite intense scientific study over the past 30 - 40 years and many thousands of inoculated (manually introduced truffle spores) trees being planted throughout the south of France, Italy and Spain, progress on reversing this trend of decline in Europe remains slow. It seems the mysterious black truffle guards its secrets of lifecycle and successful reproduction very closely indeed!
Truffles ‘Black & White’
A truffle is the highly aromatic, subterranean, fruit of a fungi growing on the roots of specific host trees. There are literally hundreds of varieties of truffle that exist in almost all continents, yet only a handful have any real significance in the culinary world. Two varieties of truffle stand head and shoulders above all others in value and interest; these are the French Black and Italian White. Despite several plantings worldwide, to this date the Italian White has not been successfully grown in cultivation and is still mainly harvested from the natural forests of Italy, but also in small pockets of south east France and Croatia.
It is therefore mainly the French Black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, often referred to as the ‘Black Diamond of The Kitchen’ that has been planted in cultivated truffieres in Europe, Australia and in a range of locations around the globe. The harvest in Australia lasts for around 10 - 12 weeks, generally commencing late May in the west and mid June in the east of the country.
Capturing the imagination of all is the method by which truffles are found and harvested. The truffle’s complete lifecycle occurs underground and remarkably, nature has given it the powerful aromatics that we revere, quite simply for detection and natural distribution by animals.
Centuries ago wild boar were observed in natural oak forests frantically excavating truffle with their snouts, and so for many years thereafter pigs were used as markers of where to find the precious truffle. In the 1700’s hunters began to train dogs to find truffle and for obvious reasons they were seen as a more effective, portable and manageable resource for this work.
Today various breeds of dog are successfully trained and used in the truffle hunt and harvest including Spaniels, Labradors and Kelpies. The necessary characteristics for success include intelligence, temperament, liveliness, work ethic and ability to stay focused. Even with all these boxes ticked there are no guarantees however, with only a small percentage of dogs trained actually making good truffle dogs.
Training takes time and pups may start as early as 8 to 12 weeks old being introduced to the truffle scent in a series of regular playful games. Gradually the truffle infused object is hidden and the dog learns to search for its prize, with good results always rewarded with a small snack or possibly a favourite toy and much verbal praise. Eventually the decoy is buried in a simulated harvest situation and the dog has to search and scent to locate it. A good truffle dog may take a year or two to fully develop its skills.
There are good reasons why truffle is one of the most expensive culinary ingredients in the world. Nowadays truffles are a scarce commodity in Europe due to diminishing natural supplies and they are extremely hard to cultivate. They may take many years to initially crop and are inconsistent and unreliable from year to year, ’if and when’ they do start to produce. The first harvest may occur from 5 - 7 years after planting and will be a relatively meagre amount of perhaps ½ kilo per hectare, which may increase slowly each year if all goes well, potentially reaching 30 – 40 kilos per hectare after 12 – 15 years. The truffle harvest season is also quite short ranging between 10 – 12 weeks during the winter months.
Areas in Australia with warm summers, cold winters and high annual rainfall (800mm plus) are potentially suited to truffle production, with open soil structure and perfect drainage also being of extreme importance. Soils must have a relatively high pH (7.8 - 8.1), so it is usually necessary to dramatically raise the pH of soil. Large amounts of lime are added to soils months prior to planting to achieve desired pH levels. The preferred site selection is a clear open north facing slope and a full irrigation system and ample water supply must be installed to irrigate trees during the critical warmer months when the truffle development is taking place underground.