Last Saturday at the local market I stumbled across a purveyor of something special. This was the first time the purveyor had presented his wares at this market, but on stumbling upon it I was time-warped to a most marvellous childhood experience.
As I walked through the doors as a young boy the immensity of what was before me still tingles today. It was magical, mysterious, colourful, ornate and incredibly exciting. To this humble Yorkshire lad it was indeed an entrance in to a dreamland; a kingdom of fantasy laid before me, a fantasy that was personified as the most famous store of Knightsbridge, Harrods.
I remember the toy department with magicians bedazzling kids with card tricks and colourful, smoky flashes. There were mechanical toys whizzing in circles above, the sounds of instruments, electronic games and beeps and buzzes from the iconic Atari 2600. From there it was on to a middle eastern paradise with ornate furniture, gold and organza, soft Persian carpets and an air of mystique. Every aisle and floor I walked, every corner I turned was another surprise, another excitement, another memory. Finally, I entered a most incredible place that eclipsed the others – a majestically ornate food hall with an unbelievable amount of the most diverse range of food I had ever seen. Although food was not a big part of my life in those early years, the memory of what I saw still lingers. Amazing displays of cheeses, hanging cured meats, decorative and delicious looking chocolates and sweets, cakes, puddings, vegetables and fruit from every corner of the earth, exotic tinned food, spices, herbs, meat, game, seafood, caviar, bottles of Chablis and Chateaneuf-du-Pape, and other weird and wonderful preparations that I had no idea of what they were. But the one thing that stood out – the picture of it still being so clear in my mind’s eye today – was a globular mass, that of which I had never seen before. I remember the price tag next to it; finding the most expensive item in each department had been the game of the day. One thousand seven hundred and fifty pounds. My word, that must taste good because it looks disgusting I thought. And there’s no way I’ll ever be able to afford it anyway, unless I became a brain surgeon – for some reason, as kids, we thought brain surgeons were the richest people of all. Well, I am not a brain surgeon today and as I walked through a farmer’s market in Melbourne last weekend the astonishing food halls of Harrods returned. And why? Of course it’s because of truffle.
This week is the first week of an 8-week truffle season here in Victoria. For the first time ever at our monthly farmer’s market was a grower and purveyor of those fine black truffles. I was drawn in by the truffle aroma which was an experience missing from the enlightenment of Harrods. I have eaten truffles at restaurants, albeit in minute quantities, but never had the pleasure of laying my hands on my own truffle and being able to experiment with it. The stall holder waved a tub of truffle grinds in my vicinity and the aroma intensified – I was hooked now. In a sealed jar of rice I spotted 4 or 5 truffles of varying size and I asked to have a look. With fervent enthusiasm I was shown the largest of the group and asked with a little tongue in cheek if I would like to buy it.
“Sure” I said,
to which the purveyor got serious…just $645 sir. I don’t think he had spotted my tongue in cheek return.
That price was for about 250g of truffle – I didn’t think it was going to be the day that I finally got my hands on a black nugget of delight; but I just couldn’t walk away, this was my time, surely.
We ended up chatting for a while about truffles. He told me that 8 years ago he had bought some English and French oak saplings that had been impregnated with the truffle fungus spores and then planted them in some fertile land in Middle Victoria. The hope being that the truffle would grow by taking sugars from the tree whilst in return providing the tree with nutrients. After five years the truffles were ready for harvest – or firstly, ready to be found, which is where their trusty truffle-sniffing dog played a star role. Digging up a truffle is truly a lucky dip – some can be as small as marbles whilst others can grow up to the size of footballs (soccer balls). The most prized are truffles greater that 500g, where premium prices are paid. Excavating can be as delicate as digging up a long lost king from a car park in Leicester, taking care not to break any of the truffle. As they are camouflaged in soil this is a task for the experienced. It’s fascinating and heartening to know that food is still being produced like this.
After our chat I was stood there at the farmers market in Melbourne now ready to purchase a portion of that disgusting expensive globular mass I had seen all those years ago. And I did…a small 16g piece for about $40. Never have I been so excited with an ingredient purchase.
The first thing when I got home was to cut of a slither and eat it. I wanted to get the true essence of a fresh truffle with no other ingredient getting in the way. I have had truffle oil before, which is oil mostly flavoured with the chemical compound bis(methylthio)methane, a flavour synthesised that has the ‘characteristics’ of white truffle. I don’t mind truffle oil in absolute moderation and it does give you some hint of what truffle tastes like, but only a very, very tiny hint.
The characteristics of the black truffle started with an intense wild mushroom flavour, which is not surprising that they are both funguses. However, this was then superseded with a peppery cabbage like flavour which then seamlessly run in to that distinctive truffle flavour – one that you would have to taste truffle to truly know; this taste is was what comes through in the aroma. But unlike dried truffle that I’ve had in restaurants this truffle was still moist and so had a really amazing texture in the mouth.
Tasting the truffle like this meant that I could start to think about pairing it with other ingredients. Something simple. I have always wanted to make a Périgueux sauce, an iconic sauce from the Périgord region of France, using locally grown truffles. Unfortunately, this sauce is the ultimate in decadence and as such requires an amount of truffle way beyond my 16g. Instead I looked to a less decadent use of the truffle and determined from the flavour that it would pair greatly with the likes of egg, cream, mushroom, chicken…flavours that would complement, not overpower.
I had about 3 meals worth of truffle in hand and I have to say that the first one, soft buttery slow-cooked scrambled eggs finished with the grated truffle, was incredible; a truly great pairing. So much so that the second meal was the eggs again.
I now have about 8g of truffle left so the plan is to grate half in to some cream and let it infuse for a few hours, then use it as a base for a mushroom, garlic, white wine and truffle cream tagliatelle finished by grating the rest of the truffle over it with a little Reggiano. I’ll let you know how it goes.