Truffles.

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??

Rica rica.

The sad news about this week’s ingredient is that you probably won’t get to taste it outside Chile. Oh no, readers groan. Another travel story. Stay with me! Rica rica is such a cool little plant and worth knowing about, just because it exists.

Rica rica, also known as acantholippia deserticola lives only in the Andes highlands north of Chile and into Bolivia, and is prevalent in the Atacama Desert. The Atacama is a high altitude desert and either the driest place on earth or close to it. It depends on your definition of ‘dry’ apparently. Anyway, the Atacama is pretty dry, evidenced by the disappearance of approximately 20 litres of moisturising cream into my skin on a daily basis during my visit 🙂

Back to the rica rica: it is one of only a handful of plants that survives in the Atacama. It is a member of the same family as lemon verbena, and has a similar thyme-y, minty, piquant taste. And it is SO fragrant. When you squish the leaves between your fingers and inhale: aah. Bliss.

It is known to treat an upset stomach as well as problems of the heart, kidneys, altitude sickness and circulation of the blood. But my favourite medicinal use of rica rica is in a Pisco Sour, the go-to drink of both Chile and Peru*.

Rica rica makes the BEST Pisco Sour. Unfortunately this little ingredient is not available to purchase anywhere that I can find and I am KICKING myself that I didn’t purloin a packet or two while I was there.

So not much in the way of recipes or suggested uses for this one… I just love it’s hardy nature, it’s pluck, in surviving such a harsh environment.

The fun fact.

* There is some crazy ‘who owns Pisco’ stuff going on between Chile and Peru to the extent that, when you enter Peru the customs form asks you specifically if you are carrying any liquor labelled ‘pisco’ that was not made in Peru. Haha. I love that.

Kampot pepper.

In the middle of a surprisingly amazing holiday in Cambodia (not surprising that we had a good holiday, just surprising that it was SO great, SO interesting and SO much fun) we got in a tuk tuk and travelled for a long time over quite* bumpy dusty dirt roads to the pepper farms of Kampot. We went mainly because we wanted a day out in a tuk tuk and didn’t expect to be quite so blown away by pepper. Yes, pepper.

I had never given much thought to pepper. It was just one of those things I used every day and it was small and black and required a grinder. Depending where you were, this grinder was either easily slotted into your hand, or big enough to substitute for an artificial limb (I’m looking at you, Sydney Italian restaurants in general).

But at the Kampot pepper farm I learned that pepper is so much more. And infinite in variety. Red, white, green, black. Round, long. They were all here for our edification and education. Kampot pepper has AOC certification. That means it’s like champagne that can only come from the Champagne region of France. I love champagne. But I digress.

*very extremely maximally 

The research.

What is it?

Kampot pepper is a cultivar of piper negrum and has been a certified appellation of origin (AOC) product since 2010.

Where is it from?

Uh… duh! KAMPOT!

Specifically the foothills of the Elephant Mountains, where the quartz content of the soil apparently helps to give the pepper its unique terroir.

Kampot pepper first came to world attention in the 13th century. Production in the modern era was initiated under French colonial rule in the 1870s. By the 1960s there were 1 million pepper poles in Kampot, but this drastically declined during the civil war. Production is now increasing again but is not at the pre-war level yet.

There’s a bit of argy-bargy about deforestation occurring due to the increase in production. I find it hard to know where to land on this issue. On one hand I am a big fan of trees and protecting the planet, it being the only one we currently have. But on the other, who are we as rich white Westerners to tell these people, who are trying SO hard to emerge from a terrible war and destruction and poverty that they can’t try to make a quid any way they can?

The flavour.

Kampot pepper is so fragrant! And so full of flavour. It has helped me to see the pepper light and recognise that, like so many things, there can be the regular workaday variety that you don’t think much about, and the supremo version that can change your life.

What does it go with?

I have only three words for you: Kampot. Pepper. Crab.

OK, I have more words: anything you put pepper on.

The fun fact. 

Black peppercorns are green when harvested but change colour during drying. White peppercorns are black ones without the skin. Red peppercorns are green ones left on the vine for an extra four months.

The rant.

I am reading a lot about Cambodia and its government. Again. I don’t really want to say too much as I would love to return and preferably not be thrown in the clink, but those beautiful people deserve so much more and so much better. They are extraordinarily resilient, kind and peaceful people, and this oppression – that has been tolerated by Western countries and even rewarded with aid – is yucky (understatement). Watch the movie ‘First They Killed My Father’ if you want to spend a harrowing night at home with the popcorn.