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??

Vanilla.

Is there a baked good in the entire history of the universe that wasn’t enhanced by a bit of vanilla? Answer: no. As a baking fiend my pantry is full of different varieties – the pods, the paste, the essence – and all of them get a pretty good workout. But up until researching this post I didn’t really know too much (aka anything) about this gorgeous tasting and divinely fragrant little gift to the world. So…

The research.

What is it?

Vanilla, along with cardamom and saffron, is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It is found in the seeds of the orchid vine vanilla planifolia which is native to Mexico. Obtaining true vanilla is a lengthy process, as the beans are slowly fermented then seeds extracted and ground. Pollination is also difficult as specific conditions are required. A method of hand pollination was developed in Reunion in 1841 – the variety of vanilla grown there and in Madagascar is called Bourbon vanilla, after the island’s former name.

The vanilla flavour (from the vanillin) is easily chemically synthesised from clove oil, waste material from the paper and wood-pulp industries and petrochemical products – YUM!! This artificial vanilla is very close to the natural flavour and so the export of real vanilla is in decline. About 97% of the world’s supply of vanilla is now synthetic… so if you want to be sure of getting the real deal, get the pods people!

Where is it from?

It is native to Mexico but is now grown in Tahiti, Madagascar and Indonesia. Tahitian vanilla is said to be fruity and spicy, Madagascan the most common, Mexican spicier and richer.

Any health benefits?

When vanilla became popular in 17th century Europe it was used for a huge variety of things – stomach ulcers, sedation and seduction – yes, it has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac.

The flavour.

The flavour comes from the seed pod – the bean, if you will. All beans contain thousands of seeds – those little black grains you see in anything that has been made with true vanilla pods eg vanilla bean ice cream*

Vanilla is rich, full, aromatic and powerful and highly fragrant. Check out some ideas for vanilla’s best playmates.

*If I was an ice cream manufacturer who wanted to sell shedloads of ice cream to gullible consumers, I would sprinkle any old black dust into it and call it ‘vanilla bean’. Cheaper to make. Sell at a premium. Make lots of lovely money. Lucky for you, dear readers, I am not in the ice cream business.

Ideas for vanilla:

Vanilla will enhance every fruit. Every fruit. Think apples, raspberries, apricots… whatever. Vanilla and chocolate – this was its only role back in Incan times: to flavour chocolate. It is a standard addition to cakes, biscuits, pies, anything sweet.

But how about some savoury ideas? I would think about trying a pairing with its close partners anise and cardamom in some dishes – tomato-based things in particular (tomato being a fruit).

Aside: did you know that Galliano has vanilla and anise as its core ingredients?

The fun fact.

The word ‘vanilla’ derives from the Latin word ‘vagina’. In ancient Rome, vagina meant ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’. The rascals over in Spain adapted that word to ‘vaina’ which then resulted in the diminutive form ‘vainilla’ meaning ‘little sheath’. As the vanilla pod resembles a sheath, vanilla got its name. Now try eating vanilla ice cream without thinking about that. Ha.

Photo by Cel Lisboa on Unsplash