Let's Talk Truffles
By Barbara Voris Eastman
From a few feet away a black truffle may look like something retrieved from a naughty child’s Christmas stocking. But believe it or not, this rather homely black fungus is one of the most highly prized and expensive food items in the world. At its peak, black perigord truffles may go for more than $1000 a pound and an enterprising and passionate Munster couple, Lillian and Frank Brunacci, have been importing truffles to the US for the past four years through their business, The Chefs Diamond Company, (Chefs Diamond being one of the nicknames given to truffles).
Describing the Indescribable
This knobby looking fungus has an aroma and taste that is sublime. It has an earthy, woody flavor on its own, but the flavor of anything it is added to is enhanced to the 10th power. Shave it over something as simple as an omelet and you’ll taste eggs as you never have before. There is almost nothing that can’t be made better with the addition of some truffles. They’re like a psychedelic trip for your taste buds where every flavor becomes more vivid.
The Chef from Down Under
Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Frank is a Michelin star-rated chef who was accustomed to using truffles at some of the best restaurants in Australia, Europe and the US. He and Lillian met while both were working at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans. Several years ago they moved to The Beach Coast when Frank was recruited and hired as Executive Chef for Sixteen, the elegant gourmet restaurant in Chicago’s Trump Tower.
Truffle Production in Western Australia
Through connections they made through the Australian Consulate in Chicago, the couple became acquainted with the owners of the Wine and Truffle Company in Manjimup, Western Australia, and Lillian began importing the delicacy. Truffles from France and Italy have been known as the most highly prized in the world. However, over the past several years there has been a sharp decline in European truffle production, which some attribute to urbanization, climate change, and pollution. In 1997, some enterprising Aussies, knowing that their part of the continent had soil and growing conditions similar to those in the truffle-producing regions of France and Italy, planted 13,000 hazelnut and oak trees and injected their root systems with tuber melanosporum. And then they waited.
The Waiting Game
If all went according to plan, the first truffle harvest was a minimum of several years away. So, when they planted their truffle-friendly trees, they also planted grapes and the Wine and Truffle Company of Manjimup was born. Today it is the largest truffle producer in the southern hemisphere and also produces some award-winning Australian wines.
Gone to the Dogs
Traditionally, Europeans have used specially trained swine to locate truffles. Pigs are attracted to the musky aroma and also to the taste of truffles. More often today, dogs are used to locate truffles. They have a keen sense of smell so they can lead the handler to the truffles, but dogs simply have no interest in eating the prized fungus. The Wine and Truffle Company in Manjimup uses dogs exclusively and with great success.
Frank spent four years at the helm of Trump’s restaurant, and witnessing the growing popularity of Australian truffles and seeing the earning potential, he decided to take a hiatus from running a restaurant and joined Lillian in the business. With two small children at home, Isabella ( 7) and Massimo ( 5), Lillian welcomed Frank’s involvement. Frank knows every truffle-buying chef in Chicago and many others across the U.S. Because he is a renowned chef, Frank would not risk his reputation unless he was 100% convinced that Australian truffles are of the finest quality, and Frank’s endorsement influences many buying decisions.
Seasonal Pairings Like Never Before
Because truffle season in the southern hemisphere coincides with our summer, using Australian truffles opens up a season of truffle use that was never available with European truffles. Plus, Australian truffles are shipped several times a week—usually in 3 to 5 hours after being harvested—so they are at the peak of freshness when they arrive in Chicago and are then re-packaged and shipped to the Brunacci’s customers.
At his core, Frank is a chef and plans are underway for a restaurant and specialty foods store in Chicago featuring--guess what? Truffles.
The Chefs Diamond Company
Lillian and Frank Brunacci
The Brunacci’s import Australian truffles as well as truffles from France, Italy, and Hungary.
Barbara Voris Eastman grew up in Michigan City and moved back to the area after spending nearly 35 years working in Chicago. She is both the editor and a regular contributor to www.thebeachcoast.com.