Truffles. There are few things in this world that elicit as much excitement and wonder than this elusive fungi. New Zealand truffle expert Gareth Renowden described their smell as like "old socks and sex". Truffles have a damp earthy mustiness that is strangely alluring. Their smell is said to be similar to the pheromones released by a male pig on heat. This is why female pigs are so keen to find them, and why they are often used in France and Spain on truffle hunts.
In 2012, Australia is expected to experience its biggest truffle harvest to date, with 150 growers across the country. Production is heaviest in Tasmania and Western Australia, but there are predictions that New South Wale may eventually become the largest truffle growing region in Australia.
I first visited the Canberra Truffle Festival in its inaugural year in 2009. Three years later, it's become a much larger-scale event, and I was invited to return as a guest of the Festival.
Truffle Hunt at Tarago Truffle Farm
On the hunt for truffles
There was only one thing I really wanted to do, and that was join a truffle hunt. How do truffles grow and how do the harvesters find them? A bus took our tour group on the one hour trip from Canberra out to Gap Hill, where Denzil and Anne Sturgiss run Tarago Truffles.
Former sheep farmers, Denzil and Anne shifted their business to truffles when they planted their first hazelnut and oak trees in 2004. Truffles are produced from truffle mycorrhiza spores that are applied to the roots of hazelnut and oak trees. Truffles should start to appear after about four years. After five years, there should be enough truffles for a commercial harvest.
There are 25 people on the tour but we break up into three groups and end up following Denzil's son, Matt. They search for truffles twice a week using specially trained dogs. "Why don't we use pigs?" asks Denzil. "Well they're a bit harder to get in and out of the car," he explains with a laugh.
Female pigs have a finely tuned nose for hunting truffles, but the problem is they also want to eat them. Trying to stop a 1-tonne pig from eating a truffle is risky business, and most European truffle farmers are said to be missing at least a few fingers.
Dogs, however, have no interest in eating truffle and can be quickly trained to sniff out truffles. When they find their scent, they scratch lightly at the ground and then sit beside the spot awaiting their doggie treat.
Matt getting up close and personal to smell the soil
The dogs can be trained to detect the smell of truffles, but the handler must work out if the truffle is ready for harvesting or not. Just like fruit, truffles take time to ripen, so Matt gets down on his hands and knees to smell the soil around the truffle. It should smell strongly of truffle, indicating its ripeness.
If the truffle is dug up too early, it will be bland and flavourless - it cannot mature out of the ground. It cannot be returned to the ground either, as the delicate roots have been destroyed.
Matt uses a spoon to dig up the truffle
Each truffle hunter has their own favourite implement for digging up truffles. Matt uses a domestic tablespoon. Dalene, another truffle hunter, uses a butter knife. It's a delicate process digging at the soil and trying to locate the truffle without damaging it.
Success! A 250gram truffle
A little patience rewards us with a huge 250gram truffle. At $2,500 per kilogram, this little beauty would cost about $625.
Ribbon markers indicate when and where truffles have been found
Each time a truffle is removed from the ground, a ribbon is tried to a branch above the area, marked with the number of truffles found and the date.
The truffle is then placed in a ziplock bag which is marked with the location (referenced on the irrigation pipes that run the length of each row of trees) and date.
Some truffles grow close to the surface
Not every truffle is a keeper. Some truffles grow too close to the soil surface, leaving them vulnerable to the midday sun which can rot them quickly.
Smelling the truffle
A rotten truffle can be detected by feel and smell. A good truffle has a firm springiness to the touch, whereas an overripe truffle will cave in. A rotten truffle will also smell bad. I smelled this one and could only describe it as similar to rotten potatoes.
A dog's work is done
Truffle hunting in infinitely harder on the human than the dog. The dogs are taught to only scratch gently at the soil lest they damage the truffle. They then sit patiently to the side. Matt, however, is constantly getting up and down on the ground (knee pads are essential), either sniffing or digging the soil.
A smaller truffle find
Over the course of an hour we find about ten good truffles. Many truffles grow in a nest, so Matt has to carefully check the surrounding soil to work out if there are more hidden treasures.
Anne Sturgiss dishes out cups of homemade cauliflower soup
To warm us up after the tour, Anne ladles out cups of homemade cauliflower soup to everyone. The secret, she says, is Vegemite. We help ourselves to sour cream and shavings of fresh truffle. It's a glorious combination, the nuttiness of the cauliflower accented by the perfumed truffle.
Cauliflower soup with sour cream and fresh truffle shavings
Dieci e Mezzo
We pile back onto the bus and head back to Canberra for lunch at Dieci e Mezzo, a new Italian restaurant that is bright and airy.
The restaurant is normally closed on the weekend but is open exclusively for the truffle hunt lunch. It doesn't take long for diners to investigate the domed stands housing fresh truffles, even though it does stress out waitstaff who eventually whisk them away for safety.
Pumpkin and goats cheese ravioli, burnt butter, sage, morel dust, pecorino, fresh truffle
2010 Collector Lamp Lit Marsanne, Canberra Region
The entree is a pumpkin and goats cheese ravioli covered in a storm of grated truffle. I think fresh pasta is a natural pairing with truffle, its silkiness complementing the delicate brittleness of truffle. We also can't help admiring the painstaking work behind the miniscule melon-balling of pumpkin on the plate.
Shaving fresh truffle over our mains
The truffles on the table are used for our main course, shaved individually for each diner in a shower of decadence. It's almost magical watching the ribbons of truffle float gently down onto the plate, enveloping us in their heady aroma.
Braised veal shank, charred sweetbreads, hazelnut puree, baby carrots, parsnip, nameko mushrooms, shaved truffle
2008 Grove Estate Sommita Nebbiolo, Hilltops NSW
The braised veal shank main is quite a busy plate, littered with a pile of hazelnut powder here, and a dollop of parsnip puree there. The nameko mushrooms add a burst of saltiness, but I find myself isolating the wafer-thin slices of truffle to eat on their own, so I enjoy their flavour pure and unadulterated.
White chocolate chiboust, truffle ice cream, brioche and honeycomb crunch, violas
2010 Lerida Estate Bortrytis Pinot Gris, Canberra Region
Dessert is a striking arrangement of white chocolate chiboust, truffle ice cream and a shard of aerated white chocolate. Viola petals and the trail of brioche and honeycomb crunch add colour, but it takes some determination to get the smear of chocolate paint off the plate (mission: completed, of course).
I hadn't been sure about the idea of combining truffle with ice cream, but it works brilliantly for me, the creaminess amplifying the earthiness of the truffle.
It also works with chocolate, as we discover when we bite into the crisp shells that hold a truffle ganache.
Truffle petit fours
Twice cooked goats cheese souffle, pear and hazelnut salad $17
We've been put up at the Crowne Plaza Canberra -- dangerously close to the CBD shops as we soon discover in a whirlwind shopping spree -- and are invited to dine at the inhouse restaurant Redsalt.
Perhaps it's the overflow of patrons from Canberra Casino next door, but we're surprised to find the dining room at close to capacity on a Saturday night. We're also pleasantly surprised by the wine menu, with wines starting at $6.50 per glass. There's some effort to include local Canberra wines too, with six listed on the menu.
Seared scallops, confit carrot, sauce d'epice and black truffle $21 [avail to 31 July 2012 only]
For the entree I choose the special truffle dish that's being offered for the duration of the Truffle Festival. The scallops are seared so the flesh is still moist and sweet, crowned with dabs of shaved truffle that are surprisingly thicker than we expect.
The twice-cooked goats cheese souffle is light and airy with a golden crust to the edges. The garland of salad is reminiscent of a Christmas wreath, especially with the red cherry tomato wedges and the fuchsia pink flower petals.
Beef rib eye cutlet 350g $42
There's a roast chicken with truffles on the specials menu but I only have eyes for the beef rib eye cutlet, my favourite cut of cow. The steak is more medium than medium rare, but the meat is still reasonably tender.
Mango and coconut Bombe Alaska $14
It's been a day of eating but we still find room for sweets. I'd been hoping the mango and coconut Bombe Alaska would be torched at the table, but it arrives with its meringue tips already singed. The meringue itself is disappointingly gritty from undissolved sugar crystals, but the mango sorbet inside is sweet and fruity.
Macadamia mille feuille, passionfruit curd, raspberry coulis $14
The macadamia mille feuille is a very prettily plated dessert, dressed with fresh raspberries and pink flower petals, but it's not really a traditional mille-feuille made with puff pastry and pastry cream. It is, however, a very more-ish combination of crisp shortbread sandwiched with piped passionfruit curd, like an elaborately constructed melting moment. We eat every last crumb.
Gap Hills Farm, Tarago
The Canberra and Capital Region Truffle Festival runs until July 31, 2012. For a full listing of events, click here.
Grab Your Fork travelled as a guest of the Canberra and Capital Region Truffle Festival.
Gap Hills Farm, Tarago, ACT
Tel: +61 (02) 4849 4605
Diece e Mezzo
Corner of Bunda and Mort Streets, Canberra ACT
Tel: +61 (02) 6248 3142
Crowne Plaza Canberra
1 Binara Street, Canberra ACT
Tel: +61 (02) 6274 5506
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7/10/2012 02:37:00 am