Truffles aka tuber melanosporum are one of the most highly sought after and valued foods in the world.  Top grade truffles retail for more than $3,000 per kg, making them one of the world’s most expensive food crops. And them white truffles? Up to $10,000 per kg.

The research

Any history?

The first mention of truffles appears in the inscriptions of the neo-Sumerians regarding their Amorite enemy’s eating habits (Third Dynasty of Ur, 20th century BCE). In classical times their origins were a mystery: Plutarch thought them to be the result of lightning, warmth and water in the soil, while Juvenal thought thunder and rain to be instrumental in their origin. Cicero called them children of the earth.

The origin of the word truffle appears to be the Latin term tūber, meaning “swelling” or “lump”, which became tufer-.

Where are they from?

A truffle is a fungus that grows underground. They can grow on a number of tree roots, but most commonly hazelnut and oak. Here in Australia the roots are inoculated with truffle spores before being planted. It takes up to 5 years after planting before a well trained dog or pig might locate the first truffle. Truffle season is winter.

The most expensive and exclusive type of truffles are white Alba truffles that grow mainly in Northern Italy. They have a very intense aroma and can grow up to 12 cm.

Do they have any health benefits?
Truffles are said to be high in protein, but you might need to spend the equivalent of a Sydney house price to get any real benefit.

The flavour

A good truffle has an addictive musky, earthy scent. It’s a flavour enhancer.

What do they go with?

Although it is expensive on a per kilo basis, you don’t need a lot of it, and you don’t want to put it with any other fancy foods, otherwise the sublety of it is lost. It’s best with light flavours like scrambled eggs, pasta, and roast chicken. So spend on the truffle, save on the accompaniments 🙂

And here are some tips from the Agrarian Kitchen in Tasmania:

  • Truffle and dairy work because the dairy’s lactic acid unlocks the truffle’s flavour.
  • Black truffle in dessert is worth exploring – it tastes almost like vanilla and cocoa.

The fun fact

Australia is now the world’s fourth-largest producer of truffles. There are about 250 truffle growers around the country, with most in WA and the rest in Victoria, Tasmania, NSW and the ACT. We produce about 10 tonnes of truffle each year, about 85 per cent of which is exported.

AND Napoleon ate truffles to increase his masculinity ie as an aphrodisiac. Apparently the gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said in 1825:

“Truffles, as soon as the word is spoken, it awakens lustful and erotic memories among the skirt-wearing sex and erotic and lustful memories among the beard-wearing sex. This honorable parallelism comes not only from the fact that this esteemed tuber is delicious, but also because it is still believed to bring about potency, the exercise of which brings sweet pleasure”.

The rant

Apparently most ‘truffle oil’ does not contain ANY truffles. Harumph. They are mostly olive oil flavoured with some kind of synthetic agent. Honestly! Vanilla essence with no vanilla, truffle oil with no truffles. Who do you trust, friends? Who??

Mashed, smashed and pulled.

And other random acts of violence against food.

Technically this isn’t about a particular ingredient. Even non-technically actually. And pretty much this entire post is a rant, so no subheadings are required. Oh OK, if you insist:

The rant.

Those of you who know me will be familiar with my general ambivalence toward the current practice of pulling every kind of meat there is. I don’t really understand it, particularly when it comes to chicken. There are very few ways of getting chicken off a carcass that do not involve some kind of pulling activity, so referring to any kind of chicken as ‘pulled’ is just the worst kind of food wankery.

But when you start thinking about it, there is quite a lot of violence against food appearing on menus all over town.

There is the millenial favourite: smashed avo*.

There’s smashing and mashing and shredding and pulling going on all over town.

I understand food preparation is basically the act of taking a group of items nature has delivered to us and turning them into something else. This process obviously requires some level of manipulation and breaking down of some bits to make brand new deliciousness. But what’s with the violent terminology?

We could call it delicately detached pork. Gently flattened avo. Smooshy potato. Do they sound kinder, friends?

*And when did we start dropping the ‘cado’? Is that just an Australian phenomenon?  Oh, here’s a word that has waaaaay too many syllables so let’s drop a few off the end and oh joy, it already ends in an ‘o’ so we don’t have to add one’ like we do with every single man’s name ever.

Photo credit: Photo by FOODISM360 on Unsplash

Sugar, specifically caramel.

I decided to make creme caramel, something I am fairly surprised I haven’t attempted before. I went for the ginger infused variety, and the one large variety rather than individual ones, just FYI. If you haven’t done it yourself (ie you are the only other person in the universe who hasn’t), you first make the caramel and put it into a tin/dish where it sets hard, hard like toffee-hard. Custard is then poured over the top, a long slow bake till it’s jelly-like in consistency, and then you pop the whole thing in the fridge. For days. At least one, but preferably more. And somehow, miracle of miracles, the toffee turns back into a sauce! In the fridge! This just seemed so counter-intuitive I had to find out the why. Down the internet rabbit hole I went. And here follows the results of my investigations into the science of caramel.

The research.

What is it?

Caramel is sugar. Simple. There might be other Fakey-McFake Face versions, but suck it up, people: caramel is sugar and that is why it is delicious. Caramel can have other things added – often protein like milk, cream, butter (which may, just quietly, enhance it’s deliciousness), and of course salt for the ubiquitous salted caramel. But at it’s heart it is sugar.

Heat causes sugar (sucrose) to break down into its component sugars, glucose and fructose. Then they break down into other molecules that react with one another to create hundreds of new compounds, such as bitter-tasting phenols, fruity-smelling esters, and others that taste buttery, sour, nutty, and malty.

The caramelisation process starts around 160 deg, when the sugar melts into clear molten sugar. Around 175 deg the color changes to light straw or pale caramel brown. It’s at around here that you can make spun sugar and those cool brittle strands you see on a croquembouche, for example. Around 180 deg it goes a medium brown and will still be hard. When we head toward 190 deg it gets very dark and will cool to a softer, stickier texture. This is the point at which things like cream are often stirred in. 195 deg is where the caramel continues to darken quickly and at 210 deg it’s known as black caramel or baker’s caramel, a less sweet and more bitter-tasting browning agent used to colour a heap of things including soft drinks.

There are two types of caramel: wet and dry. Dry caramel is made purely with sugar… spread it across the bottom of a pan and heat until it liquefies and browns. This requires careful attention, as the sugar tends to darken quickly (this can be verified by me. See *) and less evenly.

Wet caramel involves mixing the sugar with a bit of water. The water dissolves and distributes the sugar to promote even browning. Because the water boils off as the sugar caramelizes, the wet method also prolongs the total time that the sugar is heated, allowing more complex flavors to develop. And since the sugar browns more slowly, it’s easier to create a light or medium caramel instead of a dark brown one. However wet caramel is more prone (proner?) to crystallisation, which is why recipes often tell you to keep basting the edges of the pan with a damp brush. And also to minimise stirring, as the edges of the pan and a stirring implement is where crystals often form and they will multiply quickly.

The flavour.

Sugar, or sucrose, has no smell and a simple taste-sweet-but when heated, it melts and darkens, developing complex aromas and flavors that taste decreasingly sweet and increasingly toasty.

Caramel can range from being light (and sweet) to darker (and verging on bitter). Personally, I am a big fan of taking it to the edge – getting it as dark as I can without burning it*.

*This predilection has resulted in many pans of burnt sugar being scraped in the sink. MANY.

The fun facts.

Nearly forgot to explain why the caramel ‘melts’ in the fridge when you are making creme caramel… it is because sugar is hydrolitic. It absorbs moisture from the things around it – in this case the custard. So it turns into that delicious runny amazingness that runs all over the dish when you invert it. Cool, huh?

The rant.

It’s not really a rant, more an observation and a bit of a sigh. All the quitting sugar (and in fact any demonisation of one ingredient or food group) saddens me. We should all just eat a wide range of things, and cook a lot more food ourselves, and the world would be a better healthier place. Focusing on one thing as the cause of obesity or the demon that is ruining our lives deflects from what I see as the big issue: when we eat processed food or food that has been prepared somewhere else by someone else, we have no idea what is going into our bodies.

My food hero, Michael Pollan, said there is a single change we could make that would exponentially improve our health.  And that one thing is… (drum roll) cook your own food. I guarantee this would reduce the amount of sugar, fat, salt, goopy preservatives and mysterious chemicals going into our temples (bodies).

Even if we baked and ate our own biscuits every single day we would not be taking in nearly as much sugar as we do drinking a bottle of soft drink.

Cook your own food. Everything in moderation. Rant over 🙂

Remember, as (rest his soul) Anthony Bourdain once said:

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”