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Unearthed. Saigon Gripped By Manjimup Truffle Mania

Unearthed. Saigon Gripped By Manjimup Truffle Mania

They’ve been described as diamonds of the dirt, little treasures, even aphrodisiacs.

Not bad for a fungus.

Of course, I’m talking about black winter truffles.

Unless you’ve been living like a truffle – under the ground in the dark – you will have noticed that Saigon at this time of year for the past couple of years has suddenly been gripped by the funk of truffle-mania.

At least around restaurants anyway.

Anyone with a remote interest in dining out will know that the appearance of Western Australian black winter truffles on menus from Anan to Quince to NEX and every other Saigon restaurant worth its (truffle) salt, is as certain as one of those funky little black subterranean-dwelling gems being detected by a trained Labrador from 20 metres.

Fortunately, we don’t need truffle sniffer dogs in Saigon to detect them at our favourite restaurants, all thanks to importer to Vietnam, Le Truffle, who organises dinners like the recent 12 Hands Truffle & Wine Dinner at The Workshop to showcase the unique aroma, flavour and texture of these mysterious tasting motley nuggets from Australia that can cost upwards of US$250 per 100g depending on quality and season. 

Behind Le Truffle is Cass Gardner, who has roots (pun intended) in both Vietnam and Australia. 

This year Cass chaperoned a handful of Saigon’s leading and most-innovative chefs to the Western Australian town of Manjimup, Australia’s truffle ground zero, where they toured the region’s most prolific and renown truffieres (it’s a word). 

It turns out that Australia is one of just three countries in the world (the others are France and Spain) that produces black winter Perigord truffles and is home to The Truffle & Wine Co., the largest single producing truffle farm in the Southern Hemisphere, sending the hounds in to dig up somewhere between 5,000kg to 6,000kg per year.

Their culinary jaunt also coincided with Truffle Kerfuffle, a weekend celebration of truffles just minutes from where they are unearthed, for some intensive research and learnings through plenty of delicious tastings.

In case you were wondering, Cass says pigs are no longer used to ‘hunt’ truffles “because they eat them after digging them up” (who could blame them) and, somewhat disturbingly, she says the male pheromones that truffles are said to emit, tend to get pigs, especially the female ones, a little too randy. 

Well, truffles did work for Napoleon apparently.  

Back in Saigon for the 12 Hands Truffle & Wine Dinner, the chefs spent the evening bumping shoulders in a shared kitchen, something worthy of a Netflix series I would reckon, where they came up with dishes that were perhaps as rare as the truffles themselves.

“We worked together for over a month to carefully plan the dishes for the menu and the wine pairings for the special dinner,” Peter Cuong Franklin of well-known Saigon dining destinations Anan and Nhau Nhau tells me during a break from the kitchen. “In good cooking, our aim is to make high quality ingredients shine and to speak for themselves. This is even more important when working with such luxurious and expensive products as the fresh Perigord black truffle from Manjimup.”

First out of the busy kitchen was Masterchef Vietnam 2013 winner and NEX executive chef Hoa Thanh Ngo who presented his gorgeous stack of grilled plump prawns with pomelo, young coconut, white basil and mixed herbs. 

Chef Hoa’s dish was bright and exuberant, reflecting the kind of cuisine NEX has become known for under his stewardship – newly-interpreted Vietnamese food that emphasises the freshness of traditional Vietnamese ingredients and flavours but with a modern edge. 

His dish was an excellent kick-off to the evening, especially given the large number of local Vietnamese among the 50-strong diners who adore seafood, and it was all the more enhanced by its pairing with a fragrant glass of Vasse Felix sauvignon blanc – semillon. 

Next, Anan’s head chef Steve Yook delivered a Korean-style arancini with kimchi, pork and cheese served up on a soup spoon, garnished with a single shaving of truffle and topped with a small white flower.

This was the type of dish you’d expect to come out of one of the most creative kitchens in Saigon, with its Korean, Italian, French and modern-Australian nuances on display.

Kimchi can be overpowering and not everyone’s favourite, however, Chef Steve balanced things so the pungent truffle sliver was still able to shine through in what was quite a complex offering for just a couple of quick mouthfuls washed down with a glass of Petaluma Yellow Label chardonnay from Australia.

In what was one of the highlights (and surprises) of the evening, executive chef Richard Toix of Jardin Des Sens sent us out his squid carbonara. 

However, instead of using pasta, Chef Richard created his own “pasta” – with squid. 

It arrived looking tender, textual, even sensual, every bit the creamy white carbonara you would expect from a chef who works in restaurants where they collect Michelin stars. 

The irony of the bacon pieces and truffle shavings sharing the dish entered my mind, I chuckled, then I tucked straight in.

To experience this dish with a Penfold’s Rawson’s Retreat semillon chardonnay was a delight, so good in fact, that had I not paid closer attention, I would’ve thought I was actually eating pasta.

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Meanwhile, Chef Peter Cuong Franklin of Anan and Nhau Nhau fame, never disappoints and on this occasion there was no reason to think otherwise.

Because one of the six chefs wasn’t in attendance for the evening, he stepped in with two dishes. 

The first one, a theatrical spoonful of his molecular pho ga, that when popped in the mouth, exploded and gushed into every nook and cranny it could find its way in to, flooding our mouths with the taste of Vietnam – at least the northern parts anyway – in one single, explosive mouthful.

His second dish, the essence of pho, was a large mouthwatering bowl of beef consomme broth and noodles with a slice of wagyu, including cinnamon, star anise, and of course, shavings of those earthy black winter truffles. 

This was Chef Peter controversially sticking it to the naysayers and pho snobs who say you can’t f**k with something as traditional as pho, well, he has and he will continue to do so – nothing is safe with him lurking.

If only I’d been in chilly Dalat sitting fireside, sipping the Cruel Mistress pinot noir it was paired with, then this would’ve been the perfect moment.

Wrapping up the mains was Quince executive chef Julien Perraudin with his monstrous wagyu medium-rare ribeye with a delightful pumpkin puree side, paired with a glass of Torbreck Old Vines GSM.

When I say monstrous, it really was.

When the steaks landed before us, I looked about my table and noticed that the only things bigger than them, were our eyes, enlarged and swirling in disbelief.

I even caught myself gasping at the slab of meat before me and it had me wondering if it would be impolite to ask for a doggy bag.

Chef Julien’s steak was the closing stanza we had all been hoping for – tender, juicy, cooked just enough and topped with those truffles.

By evening’s end, closed by two delicious desserts (with truffle honey, no less) my nose had been well-honed for the scent of truffle at short range, and it got me thinking, perhaps I could pack in my career as a writer in exchange for one digging the earth for truffles.

But then I realised a problem, like a pig, I wouldn’t stop eating them.

Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon

Photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow Mike on Instagram at @mikepalumbo_

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