The truffle conundrum

24 July, 2018 by
Annabelle Cloros

The truffle really is a miraculous piece of produce, especially those harvested in Australia. The fact we even have a local truffle industry is a feat in and of itself, but in recent years a wave of inferior products have flooded the market, making it readily available in a number of forms — from weeds to oils and plain poor-quality fresh truffle.

Tacking on the word ‘truffle’ has a realm of connotations that spring to mind — and operators know that. A bowl of fries goes from $8 to almost double the price when it’s hit with a slick of truffle oil, resulting in a high profit margin that’s almost too good to take off the menu.

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The culinary world has a bad habit of turning prized produce that should be prepared and enjoyed in its purest form into something that’s a far cry from its original being — just look at Wagyu beef that’s now churned up into burger patties or wasabi that’s more horseradish and green food colouring than plant.

Every industry has its shortfalls, but maybe it’s time we go back to basics when it comes to the truffle and embrace it for what it is — a treasure. We talk to truffle grower Peter Marshall and chefs Ross Lusted and Justin James about why they’d never touch truffle oil, the importance of seasonality and how venues should really be using truffle on a menu.

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HOCUS POCUS

You can smell it before you see it — the synthetic smell of truffle that’s not actually truffle at all, but the unmistakable scent of 2,4-dithiapentane, a compound that’s now commonly associated with truffle. And sadly, it’s a far cry from the real deal.

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Although many oils on the market claim to be infused with real truffle, the truth is the flavour components of truffles aren’t soluble in heavy oil. Unsterilised truffles will mature and rot, resulting in a rancid product with a short shelf life.

So what are those shards of truffle floating at the bottom of the bottle? According to Peter Marshall from Terra Preta Truffles, they’re Tuber aestivum, brumale or borchi; otherwise known as weed truffles worth nothing.

“In a day that we’re talking about paddock to plate, I’m amazed any chef would put a petrochemical-derived potion on food,” says Marshall. “The manufactured industry takes a single flavour essence, which is completely synthetic, puts that in with oil and then drops a few weed truffles in the bottom of the bottle so they can say on the label ‘contains truffle’.”

To survive in oil, the truffle fragments must undergo a sterilisation process that leaves little to be desired in terms of flavour profile. “They’re sterilised in an autoclave; that’s high-pressure steam,” says Marshall. “So what little flavour those weed truffles had is completely destroyed before it’s dropped into the oil. As far as I’m concerned, truffle oil has one good function — bait for rat traps.”

Listeria is also a real threat when dealing with truffle due to their contact with soil. Truffle peelings are commonly used in the creation of oils and butters as they’re cheaper and readily available, however failing to correctly sterilise truffle peelings can result in the presence of dangerous bacteria. “There’s a lot of truffle farmers who don’t prepare and sterilise the truffle correctly after it comes out of the soil,” says Marshall. “There’s a good chance of Listeria being on the surface of the truffle and on the peel. When you drop the peel into oil and it rots, you’ve just created a population of Listeria. I know some producers in Australia have breached protocol and have put contaminated oil, butter and pâte into the marketplace, which is terrifying.”

IMPOSTER SYNDROME

In 2018, people expect to have access to anything and everything all year round, yet the most common buzzwords currently associated with the food industry include ‘seasonal’ and ‘provenance’. Supermarkets stock almost every fruit and veg 365 days a year, and if we can’t grow it, it’s imported.

Constant accessibility has become the norm, yet is in direct conflict with what most venues are preaching to consumers.

Ross Lusted from The Bridge Room in Sydney says truffle oil is an industry concoction that has one purpose — to make money. “There are a lot of value-added products around truffle to extend the period of time we get to enjoy it,” he says. “But it’s one of those things that as soon as you remove the truffle from the ground and it’s transported, the flavour profile diminishes, so they have to artificially create the flavours, but there’s no comparison. It reminds me of a bad time in cooking in the ’90s when everything was flavoured with truffle oil.”

Justin James, executive chef at Vue de Monde in Melbourne agrees, and stays away from truffle oil. “My whole thing is about locality and seasonality and keeping true to Australian produce,” he says. “I’m always looking for the best ingredients possible that are in season and represent the product. For example, I only use tomatoes in the summer because it’s when they’re best. Truffles are best in the winter, how they are and not synthetically made. I wouldn’t ever use truffle oil. It just has this thing; maybe it’s been bastardised in pubs on chips or in mac and cheese.”

For Marshall, the concept of truffle oil is simply put, a con job. “It takes away from the magnificent value of the true fresh product, which is a superb foodstuff,” he says.

FRESH IS BEST

Fresh truffles are incredibly complex in terms of flavour profile. Marshall says they have anything up to 40 different flavour components, offering incredible diversity. Terra Preta refuse to use any herbicides in their truffle patches and engage in an immense amount of physical labour, pulling out grass by hand to ensure the truffles don’t have any competition during their growth period.

The result is fresh truffles that are highly sought after across the globe. “A healthy fresh truffle has a deep, rich, complex flavour profile,” says Marshall. “We check every single one for aroma, density, form and taste. Truffle oil simply tastes like petrochemicals — to us, it’s just blatantly synthetic, unpleasant and nauseating.”

GREED

Lusted embraces the seasonal nature of truffle, and says its rareness forms a core part of the truffle’s identity. However, the boom in Australia’s truffle industry has resulted in excessive use — especially when it’s in season. “There is a danger that we will have so much of this product that it actually dilutes the work the real farmers with integrity are doing,” he says. “The cultivated truffle in Australia and America changes the dynamic — we don’t have a wild product like they do in Europe. There’s going to be a greater demand, so how does that play out? There’s always going to be the value-add to it.”

The concept of adding truffle to a dish is becoming incredibly common, with operators encouraging diners to request grated truffle on any dish they please. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. “I think it’s so gratuitous that you can go to a restaurant and they say, ‘This is my fish dish and my lamb dish, and for an extra $20 you can have truffle grated over the top of it’,” says Lusted.

“We have guests come in and ask for grated truffle on their beef and we say, ‘I’m sorry we don’t do that — it doesn’t go with that dish’. The idea of putting truffle on for value-added is a marketing spin.”

It’s the same story for James, who doesn’t encourage guests to tack on truffle to dishes it’s not meant to be on. “I’m not a big truffle supplement person,” he says. “We’ll make a dish with truffle or add it into a sauce — that’s the way you can have truffle.”

CORRECT USE OF FRESH TRUFFLE

Truffle is incredibly selective with the ingredients it pairs well with, and needs fat, heat and something earthy for optimum results. “Cream, butter, alcohol and honey are all really good at releasing the flavour,” says Marshall.

Vue de Monde is one venue that goes through a significant amount of fresh truffles, with James admitting he uses a few kilos every week during peak season. “When I make a dish, I embrace truffle as it is,” says the chef. “We’re doing a new dish with broccoli and truffle purée with Wagyu tongue and fresh truffle. It can be aggressive, but when you eat it, you understand truffle and how beautiful it is.”

Over at The Bridge Room, Lusted is currently running salt-baked celeriac cooked in its own juice with pine mushrooms and truffle along with grilled quail with chestnuts and truffle. “Restraint is the key to truffle — it’s finding the vehicle that best serves the product in this short period of time,” he says.

COST

Fresh truffle is obviously an expensive ingredient that’s not a reality for a large amount of venues. But if you do decide to purchase truffles, it’s important to be frank about profit margins.

Lusted has accepted the fact he will never make money off truffles, and instead focuses on the experience it brings to staff and customers. “I think its extraordinary farmers have risked so much to get this product in Australia,” he says. “Also, just for my chefs to look at a truffle and smell it and for the service staff to understand what it means to have it as a fresh product.”

The chef also encourages operators to be smart with the other components of a dish; after all, some of the best pairings are with inexpensive ingredients such as eggs, parsley root and celeriac.

James believes incorporating truffles into a menu is all about being creative. “Simple things like potatoes, eggs or pasta all work,” he says. “With tasting menus, it’s about being the same way. If 10g of truffle is going to cost me 10 per cent of my $275 menu, for one other course, I have to be more creative on what I give. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be less or worse in creativity or quality.”

From a wholesale perspective, Marshall has deviated from the norm and has stuck with the same price for the past 10 years, leaving the value-adding to the chefs. “Value-add is the chef’s job,” he says. “They take their skill and add their experience to a dish to make it wonderful. Chefs love them because it’s a real seasonal treat and a good chef knows what to do with them.”

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

At the end of the day, truffles are the definition of a seasonal product that can’t be put back in the ground to grow or ripen a little more; what you get is what you get. Lusted has a story that encompasses what truffles are all about from when he lived in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

“You get porcini and white truffle at the same time, and I remember buying porcini on the side of the road,” he says. “We had our truffle from Alba, and for breakfast that morning, I had mushrooms and eggs with reggiano and sliced a truffle over the top — it’s a gift.”

Image credit: Honey Atkinson, Will Work for Food.

This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s July issue. Subscribe here.