Wine and truffle — have fun, be adventurous

The truffle book (Gareth Renowden, Limestone Hills Publishing, New Zealand, 2005) says that this expensive little black tuber turns off perhaps as many people as it turns on.

But whether we like it or not, the truffle’s extraordinary, penetrating aroma can’t be ignored. It gets up our nose and stays there a long time. Indeed, it’s so pervasive that if it tasted exactly as it smelled, there’d be few, if any, wines on earth capable of standing up to it.

Fortunately the truffle’s ability to enhance the flavours of other foods gives it a role beyond that first jaw-dropping perfume – opening up any number of wine matching opportunities. Ultimately what wine to serve depends more on the food and sauce accompanying the truffle than the truffle itself. As that could be anything from ice cream to steak we really have the whole wine spectrum as candidate.

But before we attempt any wine matches, what does truffle (specifically tuber melanosporum or the black Perigord variety, now in season around Canberra) smell and taste like?

New Zealand truffle grower, Gareth Renowden, likens it to a mix of unwashed socks, armpits, the whole spice cupboard, crushed garlic, damp leaves mixed with moist soil and a big floral hit: lilies for penetration and roses for sweetness.

Not tempted? Then try this reminiscence of a first truffle hunt by Elizabeth Luard (Truffles, London, 2006), “I breathe deeply. The fragrance almost overpowers me, filling my nostrils with a scent so exciting, so overwhelming, so astonishingly familiar that my head swims and I have to sit down on a tree-stump… What exactly is it that makes the scent of a truffle so thrilling? Well. The chemists tell us it’s the pheromones, the stuff that tells Noireau [her companion’s truffle-sniffing dog] that the neighbour’s bitch is on heat. There’s no other way to explain the effect. It reminds some of us – not all, no doubt – of those nights when we held our first lover in our arms and learned, once and for all, what this thing they talked about in books was all about. Sex, actually – but all new-minted and carrying with it none of the baggage of later years. I breathe deeply again. These words spring to mind: sweet almonds, ripe grapes, thyme, rosemary, juniper, the scent of heather-roots, bonfire embers after rain”.

And 26 years earlier that great food writer, Waverly Root (Food, New York, 1980), described his truffle moment – in a new Parisian restaurant,  “I bit full into it and my mouth was flooded with what was probably the most delicious taste I have ever encountered in my entire life, simultaneously rich, subtle and indescribable. It ate it all, while the other guests regarded me with loathing… I find it quite impossible to pass on any idea of its taste. If I say it was as sturdy as meat, I will start you off on a completely wrong track as to its savor. If I say it was unctuous and aromatic as chocolate, I will do the same. Truffles taste like truffles, and like nothing else whatever; and it is a rare, rare privilege to be able to taste a fresh truffle of this calibre”.

If truffle’s hard to describe it’s also hard to ignore, thanks to that beguiling perfume which does, as Elizabeth Luard says, contain pheromones. But it seems the most important of the roughly 50 compounds behind the perfume’s appeal to animals, including humans, is dimethylsulphide – a compound used in perfume making, and an integral part of the flavour of some beers, especially lagers.

But it’s a complex mix and includes acetaldehyde, ethanol and acetone – which perhaps accounts for some of the soaring floral notes in fresh truffle, one that I described as jonquil-like in my one and only encounter.

In his book, Renowden says German researchers in the early eighties found that truffles shared a sex hormone, androstonol, with boar saliva and men’s armpits. They speculated that sows might be sexually attracted to truffle smell and that this might explain the folklore of truffles as aphrodisiac. But Thierry Talou, a leading authority on truffle aroma, synthesised the aroma, sans hormone, and found pigs to be just as keen to dig for the smell.

So, one way or another, if the truffle appeals, it’ll begin with that haunting, unique, pungent, penetrating aroma. What to drink with it?

What wine can match that aroma in intensity? None that I know of. Even the most aromatic gerwurztraminer, the most floral riesling, the most perfumed, musky pinot noir don’t go anywhere near it. If then, like Waverly Root, we’re tempted to munch right into our truffle (at $125 for 50 grams), why bother with wine. Water will do.

But if, as one equally extravagant recipe suggests, we simply boil our truffle for 20 minutes in dry white wine (with a few strips of bacon and a little seasoning to enrich the stock), then surely a very dry white wine would do the trick – perhaps Chablis or Champagne.

A classic and opulent combination is truffle with foie gras, sometimes cooked with Armagnac, the robust brandy of southwestern France. I can imagine a succulent wine like Sauternes or an Australian facsimile of the style – botrytis semillon – being in harmony with this almost unimaginably rich dish.

The setting, then, drives the choice of wine. It could be an aged, top-shelf chardonnay with truffle and cheese; a fine youthful pinot noir with truffle and chicken; an aged cabernet with rare steak and truffle sauce; a Barolo or aged Rhone red or cool-climate Australian shiraz with game, mushroom and truffle.

To me, and probably to almost everyone in Canberra, the fresh truffle is a totally new world to be explored. There are no rules, then – just one guiding principle: to be adventurous and enjoy yourself.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009