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Foodies savour the smell of rich people

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White trufflesIn one memorable episode of the long-running but now discontinued ABC food program The Cook and The Chef, Maggie Beer sniffed ecstatically at an Australian black truffle before proffering it to co-host Simon Bryant. The chuckling Bryant told her it smelled like rich people.

Historically, truffles appeared on the plates of the posh and peasants alike. The stuff of legend, awe and luxury, truffles were denounced as the devil's food and adored as an aphrodisiac, all while remaining the gleaner's ultimate treat. More recently, war and global warming have seen European production fall dramatically, adding rarity to the truffle's considerable cachet.

But in Australia, the truffle has been typecast as an indulgence of the wealthy. Somehow, Australian food culture has reduced the truffle, a complex cultural icon with the ability to cross class boundaries, to little more than a rich man's treat.

It would be easy to blame economics — to say that the cost of supply dictates a price that only the wealthy can afford. But this explanation ignores the undertow of Euro-centric pretention that drags at Australian food culture.

Centuries of human appreciation, reverence — even love — have given the truffle a complex history. In France, Spain and Italy, the truffle grows wild — the least pretentious starting point imaginable. It hides beneath the soil, waiting to be unearthed by the Trifulau's dogs or, less often, pigs.

Appropriately, black and white truffles are listed alongside saffron milk caps in Patience Gray's Honey from a Weed, which explores Mediterranean wild food culture through anecdotes and recipes.

At the other end of the spectrum, Antonin Carême, chef to George IV, the Romanovs and Napoleon, lists in his collection a recipe for Salmon à La Rothschild, circa 1825, in which one pound of sliced black truffles are arranged over a whole salmon in a velvety replication of scales.

There is, of course, a middle ground for truffle enjoyment. Edouard de Pomiane's 1930s recipe for poached eggs directed his housewifely readership to 'add salt and pepper and the truffles cut into slices'. And his truffles were tinned.

It seems odd to think of the truffle as everyman's indulgence, for here in Australia, truffles divide, rather than unite, the dining public. Stepping off the escalator into Melbourne's David Jones food hall at the right time of year, shoppers may be confronted by enormous air-freighted truffles in their own glass case — a presentation that implies the price (up to $3500 a kilo) even before customers spy the little slip of cream card that displays this improbable figure.

Who could justify the purchase of even 50 grams? Other than restaurant owners, those who buy are less likely to be diehard gourmands than upper class, conservative 'foodies': people inspired more by festivals, packaging, produce-porn cookbooks and foodie flimflam than the prospect of growing their own beans or skinning a rabbit; people for whom the only substance that might conceivably get beneath the nails is crème fraîche.

In the upper class foodie's truffle-love lies an abiding nostalgia for Europe, and a desire to emulate rather than adapt. These diners gaze longingly from a country they decry as being largely wasteland, toward Europe's bountiful landscapes.

It's not just the truffle that lures the foodie — it's the idyll it represents: a simple life lived to seasonal rhythms in a place where feasts are garnered from the forests. A place their ancestors left for the Australian treachery of dust, drought, chain supermarkets and a culinary history that stops dead at sausage rolls.

Distance corroborates truffles' exclusivity. Antipodean truffle eaters must rely either on the auspices of air freight or local farmers. The Australian Truffle Grower's Association advises that it can take five to ten long years to produce a commercial crop. Truffles are only getting more expensive, and more desirable.

At heart, though, it's fashion that drives upper class foodies to buy truffles. Apparently, any ingredient prized by the foodie establishment is worth the price in dollars and food miles. At truffles, enviro-ethics and consumerist self-realisation collide. They're European! Maggie recommends them! And they're so very indulgent!

Despite damnation, bombs and climate change, the truffle continues to prove that peasants can eat like kings — just not in Australia.

Georgina LaidlawGeorgina Laidlaw has more than ten years’ experience writing and editing, and has a particular interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture. She lives in country Victoria and writes regularly at backstoryesque.blogspot.com


Topic tags: georgina laidlaw, truffles, The Cook and The Chef, Maggie Beer, Simon Bryant, Antonin Carême



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Existing comments

Anything that is rare is likely to taste marvellous. We human beings live in our minds.A hypnotist is able to suggest you are eating the manna of the Gods even if it's bread. During the war when chewing gum was unobtainable my mother sent me to buy 7 lbs. of potatoes for a shilling. I came home with a shilling's worth of chewy.At shops when they had counters tobacco was "under the counter"
and tinned asparagus was a rare luxury as was tinned peaches.

Jack KENNEDY | 16 February 2010  

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