Saturday, August 14, 2010


“Will you be able to keep what you find?”

That’s the question everyone asks when I tell them we are going on a truffle hunt.

Of course it’s not that sort of a ‘hunt’, I explain. Ex-Customs sniffer dogs do the actual searching, and anyway at around $2000 or so a kilogram, truffles are far too valuable for tourists like us to simply scavenge.

Besides, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with one – a whole one – if I ever found myself in possession of it. While I’d never say no to a truffle of the chocolate persuasion, these fellows are the real deal: roundish, knobbly, pockmarked and liberally covered in soil, not with a genteel dusting of sifted cocoa ready for afternoon tea.

No beauties these, to be sure, yet their flavour and scent have evoked crimes of passion and intrigue, and at the very least, seduction. “Mud cooked by lightning”, Plutarch called them.

Right now it’s truffle harvesting time in Australia, and they’re popping up all over the country. Tasmania was the first state to plant and harvest them, but now good finds are being made at groves in NSW, Victoria and WA.

Black beauties from Truffles Australis

These are the winter black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) beloved by the French, and found most notably in the Perigord region. Word is that some places in Australia are also currently trying to raise the rarer white truffle most commonly unearthed around Alba in northern Italy.

But something you may not know is that Australia has its very own truffles. You won’t find theses indigenous, native truffles on anyone’s menus, though. Not unless you’re a potoroo, bandicoot or native mouse. These animals must be natural gourmets because they love them, digging them up from the base of paper bark trees, eucalypts, casuarinas, and many other native shrubs.

I’ve never seen these wild truffles, but I’m told they may smell faintly of peanut butter or bubble gum. Or several far worse smells – just use your imagination for those!

What’s more, although about 250 species have so far been indentified in this country, it’s possible there could be as many as another thousand or more varieties lurking out there in every sort of environment from lush rainforests to the arid inland mallee areas.

So, although it seems Australia has an inexhaustible range of truffles, in all shapes and sizes (and odours) they’re not about to catch on too soon. I reckon I’ll stick to the good old black ones.

That’s if I can afford them!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


It’s hot. It’s steamy. It’s Tahiti. Well, Moorea anyway – one of French Polynesia’s many, many breathtakingly beautiful islands.

OK, we’re not even there. We’re actually on a motu (a coral island) off Moorea.

Our pareo-clad hostess has seated us at a rustic table on the sand, just a couple of metres from the water’s edge. And we’re about to deal with a huge platter of speckled ruby red coconut crab.

But before we start to hammer open the claws (forget regular crab tools, these fellows are whoppers: we have each been equipped with a small mallet and a block of wood to get at the sweet flesh) our Polynesian hostess, Maire, wife of French-born chef, JP, shows us an even greater delicacy.

“Before we prepare the crab we feed it on coconut for days,” she says, cracking opening a section as big as the body of a normal crab. “When we cook it, this – the crab’s liver – becomes our foie gras!”

Crab liver? Not force-fed goose liver? Could this be the South Pacific’s answer to an ethical dilemma?

At Maire’s urging we dip our knives into the creamy mass and spread it on crusty French bread. It turns out to be just like the real thing, too, but with the faintest hint of coconut, as you’d hope. Who cares that we never knew crabs had livers until this moment?

Coconut crabs are the world’s largest arthropod. That’s any beastie with a shell, not a spine. Technically they are in the same classification as spiders and scorpions and a whole host of other things I don’t want to eat and which probably don’t have livers anyway.

As you’d expect from its name, the coconut crab is happiest hanging around coconut palms, of which its habitat – the Indian and Pacific Oceans – has many. While they can climb trees, they wait until the coconuts fall to the ground before relishing them.

Just imagine how a quiet beach walk would turn scary if you encountered one of these individuals as they often measure a metre across and are said to weigh as much as 16 kilograms.

Predictably, coconut crabs eat coconut, which would be a problem for them if they were not strategically equipped with pincers strong enough to crack the shells and allow them access to the sweet milky flesh. Comparing my fingers, arms, legs to the toughness of a coconut, suddenly I’m glad the one I have encountered on this beach is safely cooked and glowing temptingly on my table!

As we get our mallets and stones to work on the flesh of the crab, it turns out to be tender, delicious and of course plentiful. Some say it’s an aphrodisiac.

I know I have certainly been smitten by its foie gras. Just my luck to fall for something so rare, so distant, I may never come across it again, I think.

Oh, well, that’s love for you, I guess!