Did someone say “truffles”?
For months, FineDiner and I have been anticipating the Truffle Festival in Canberra. When the details were finally released on the website we booked ourselves in for truffle laden long lunch at Senso (it took a persistent and enthusiastic FineDiner to convince the establishment to take our booking before they were even ready to take bookings). Closer to the date, I spotted the words “truffle hunt” on the festival website and it immediately sparked vivid sensory imagery for me. Foraging for truffles in a dewy forest with mottled sunlight lighting our path? Trailing behind an enthusiastic pig; listening to its soft snuffling, snorting grunts as it seeks to distinguish the distinct earthy aroma of the truffle from all the other woody forest scents? Finding and digging up those elusive nuggets of black gold? It elicited all sorts of competitive desires in me. Before I was merely excited by the prospect of a truffle lunch; now I was manic with anticipation of the hunt.
Despite numerous barriers that threatened to railroad my truffle hunting plans (namely, the Co-pilot having only arrived back in Sydney from the US a few days before the festival and still feeling jetlagged; the Co-pilot (characteristically) double-booking himself for a rugby game the day we were meant to drive down to Canberra; knowing we would miss part of the Australia vs. Ghana world cup match by the time we got to Canberra and lots of tut-tutting from well meaning family) – we overcame all the hurdles and arrived in Canberra in the early, freezing hours of the morning.
The next morning we headed to Fyshwick markets to meet the rest of our group and the truffle hunting group. Fyshwick markets was smaller and simpler than I expected – a small group of fresh food grocers, butchers, fishmongers, groceries, cafes and restaurants ring a carpark. We bought a morning coffee, shovelled down a pastry and meat pie and then went to meet the others at Senso at 9am. In hindsight this was a genius idea as the tour only offered a coffee to start and those that didn’t greedily cram in breakfast were left hungry till lunch.
After a good half hour of standing about dilly-dallying at Senso we finally headed out to Blue Frog Truffle Farm where the truffle hunt would take place. The farm is located in Sutton, about 20 minutes from the markets and on the way there we gleefully joked about trying to steal and hide the truffles; snatching them and outrunning the truffle dogs or turning on our phone GPS to mark the farm’s location so we could re-visit the farm under the cover of darkness for a ninja-style night raid. On arrival at the farm we noted the very subtle blink-and-you’ll-miss-it signage and the impossible-not-to-notice reinforced electric fence surrounding the property. Clearly there are others that seriously consider raiding the farm!
Wayne Haslam greets us as we bundle out of the bus and piping hot roasted chestnuts are shared around. As the farm owner and President of the Australian Truffle Grower’s Association, Wayne gives us a short and informative talk about truffles and the art of truffle farming.
It was fascinating! I had pages of notes – too many to share them all, but here are a few random facts I found interesting. Did you know…
- The first record of truffles was by the Ancient Greeks – both Aristotle and Pythgoras declared truffles to be an aphrodisiac
- The Church of the middle ages was outraged by the attention to truffles and condemned in sermons as they were black; grew underground; couldn’t be explained; ripened in winter when all else was dormant or bare; and produced an intoxicating perfume.
- The Church changed their mind in the 15th century and named them in a volume of “permissible pleasures”
- Until recently, the Spanish regarded truffles as peasant’s food since the conquering Moors and pigs ate them.
- Truffles are fungi that grow underground, form a symbiotic relationship with specific trees infected with truffle mycorrhizae.
- There are lots of different truffles including native truffles and truffle-like fungi but the type of “truffles” referred to by the food world are generally the French black or Perigord truffles (Tuber melanosporum) and Italian white truffles (Tuber magnatum). French black truffles are the type farmed in Australia.
- White truffles have a stronger perfume than black truffles and command a higher market price, but can’t be grown in Australia. They are associated with poplars and are found in Northern Italy.
- There are 150 growers in Australia spanning every state and territory except the Northern Territory, and more than a tonne was harvested in 2009 using truffle dogs
- Winter truffles have a stronger perfume than summer truffles, and Australia’s fresh truffle season extends from May to early August.
- Truffles lose their aroma after harvest and are best used within 3 weeks of harvest
- Many of the truffles farmed in Australia are exported to Asia and the US (the European market is too mature).
- All truffle oil is synthetic and doesn’t taste like fresh truffles
- Truffles contain glutamic acid, thus appealing to the umami taste receptors and acting as a flavour enhancer in food.
- Fats retain the aroma of truffles and they work best with simple dishes involving eggs, mushrooms, chicken, pasta, potatoes, risotto, Jerusalem artichokes and celeriac
- Truffles are shaved to expose a large surface area and to release the maximum amount of perfume, the thinner the shaving the better
- A 100gm truffle is about the size of a tennis ball and costs about $3AUD/gm
Wayne points out his oak saplings where the precious truffle hides beneath. Despite the very interesting subject matter, a few of us with shorter attention spans found it difficult to devote our undivided attention to Wayne. The curious glances from a doe-eyed golden Labrador and occasional whine and yip 2 energetic black and white Kelpie-Labrador cross pups elicited soft awws from those of us who were closest to the distraction.
Before long we were introduced to Adrian Mielke, the truffle dog trainer and Zita from Australian Highland Truffles. Adrian informs us that the 3 year old Zita was originally intended as a seeing-eye dog, but where her energetic nature rail-roaded those plans, she is perfect as a truffle dog. Apparently truffles have a boar-like scent so pigs have an uncanny knack of finding and eating them, truffle dogs like Zita on the other hand need to be trained. Luckily for us, Zita doesn’t care much for the truffle itself – she is more interested in doggy treats and playtime rewards.
And without further ado, we all set off at a brisk pace into the truffière foraging for black gold.
Within seconds Zita has identified a truffle, excitedly tapping her paw on the ground at the site. Wayne searches the area carefully using a dessert spoon claiming it helps him control the excavation but it appears there is no truffle in sight. Wayne explains that sometimes the truffles may be strong on the nose for Zita, but might be too small and well-camouflaged for us to find in the dirt.
Adrian and Zita set off again and just a few metres away finds the next site. Wayne starts to dig, but Zita exudes confidence in this find and eyes off her treat.
Meanwhile Wayne diligently digs at the spot Zita tapped.
And strikes black gold! I was astonished! I expected to find truffles that were quite small – perhaps the size of a ping pong ball or apricot at best. I expected that apple sized truffles would be rare – but that’s the size of the first find!
It is brushed off and proudly displayed for all to see. It might be a winner in the culinary world, but its not going to win any beauty prizes any time soon! The closeup of the prized knobbly find does remind me of er.. something Zita could produce.
Looks aside, we greedily pass around the truffle and assess the scent for ourselves. The perfume is difficult to describe – it’s earthy, woody, and I thought there was the slightest hint of ripe shiitake in there somewhere.
Whilst we were distracted with the intoxicating perfume, Zita has been busy in the background and has identified another find. Wayne begins to dig up what looks to be the biggest truffle on earth!
The unearthed truffle is impressively large and we immediately speculate about how much it could be worth. Wayne looks grim though and declares the truffle is rotten. He demonstrates by pushing the surface gently and showing us how easily the soft truffle gives way.
He peels apart the truffle with ease and it is rotten to the core. The normally black and white speckled interior is a disturbing clay orange and the scent has transformed from the earthy, heady perfume into the putrid overwhelming stench of rotting chicken. I wasn’t standing that close to the truffle but the cloud of stink was pervasive and unmistakable.
When asked about the reason why the truffles get rotten, Wayne admitted that they didn’t know what caused the rot, but he tries his best to salvage the truffle and does so by grating it up and spreading it around the farm to encourage the spores to spread. Given our party were all scientifically trained, we immediately raised the potential issue of spreading around the rot if the cause was bacterial or fungal. We’d suggest limiting the spread of rot as much as possible – possibly even sterilising the rotten site and all equipment that come in contact with the rotten truffle to contain and isolate the rot. But Wayne didn’t think that would help, although he is seeing increasing numbers of rotten truffles every year…
The routine continued for another half hour – Zita would bound off, Wayne would follow with his personal paparazzi group and we found many more truffles of varying size – but none larger than the rotten behemoth.
For the last 10 minutes, Adrian brought the truffle pups out, Juno and Ra. He’d selected them at 5 weeks old from the litter based on their affinity for the scent of truffle oil. Now 11 weeks old, the pups were squirming bundles of softness like any puppy, but when shown a truffle became very excited.
The best was saved for last, and though small, the last truffle we found that day was declared the day’s best find. The perfume was much stronger than any other truffle we found that day, and was priced accordingly. This 50gm specimen would cost only about $100AUD. This sounded very reasonable and affordable, lighting up eyes in our party, but alas Wayne already has standing orders with the local restaurants who are awaiting the truffles from today’s find.
I assess the perfume for myself and find it delicious indeed! Definitely considered stashing it away in my jacket, but Zita would’ve picked me out.
At the conclusion of the hunt, we’d found a total of 7 good truffles (8 including the rotten one). The Haslams perform a truffle hunt every week or so for the 3 months of the winter truffle season. Last year Blue Frog Truffle Farm harvested 7kg of truffles, but as the farm expects about 40-45% increase of yield year on year, this year they’re hoping for over 10kg.
The impressive production yields were not lost on the enterprising amongst us and we all started fantasizing about starting our own truffle farms out in the countryside.
We get back onto the bus to head back to Fyshwick and the lunch at Senso that awaited us and Zita wanted to come to lunch too! Having her collar removed by Adrian is a sign that work is over and Zita is allowed to zoom around the farm like a dog missile sequestering hugs and cuddles from everyone.
Back at Senso, the kitchen was a hive of activity as the chefs rushed to get all the prep done for service. The dining room and kitchen is a large open plan space where diners sit at bright sun-lit tables adorned with fresh flowers and can watch the beavering in the kitchen.
We were seated at our tables poured glasses of bubbling 2006 Seppelt “Fleur de Lys” chardonnay pinot noir and provided fresh sliced bread with butter and salt speckled with chunks of truffle.
When we noticed the truffle slicer had been brought out for the first dish, we headed to the kitchen for a closer sticky beak and to admire the delicate care taken in plating the first dish.
The first course was celeriac, snails and bitter orange with truffles. The snails were soft and tender – in fact it’s the first time I’ve had snails and not thought they’re rubbery little nuggets; the subtle celeriac component came in both soft cubes and foam contrasted with crunchy chestnut chips and fragrant orange. There’s no doubt the truffle is the leading star in this dish as the wonderful rich aroma of truffle enveloped us as the dishes were placed before us. We all felt compelled to just lean over the dish and inhale deeply. All the other flavours were very subtle and I think this worked to showcase the truffle perfectly.
Between courses we roamed around the restaurant, perusing through the impressive array of cookbooks and gourmet culinary reading materials next to the kitchen. But it was difficult to concentrate as we could smell the veal jus being drizzled over the pappardelle for our second course.
When placed before me the first thing I smelt was not veal or truffle, but the zingy notes of lime zest that was grated over the pappardelle. As I tossed the pappardelle and unveiled the layers beneath, the meatier smells of truffle and veal assaulted my senses. It was a relatively simple dish but the combination of fresh pasta, meaty veal, earthy truffle all refreshed with lime was superb. It was my favourite dish from that lunch.
The wagyu rump for our main course was tender, not too fatty and the truffles adorning it savoured slowly. But the other flavours in the dish: the shallots, the fresh shiitake and the herbed radish neither complimented nor lifted the flavour of the truffle. It was a nice dish but nothing memorable.
Long after the last bite of our mains were digested, the main’s accompanying side of truffled spaetzle arrived. At least, we think it was truffled spaetzle – we can’t be sure, because the waitress who placed it on our table plainly said she didn’t know what it was because it wasn’t on the menu. We asked whether it was supposed to accompany our mains and she smiled and nodded yes, then realising we had empty plates, quickly corrected herself, and said .. er.. no.
When she walked away we dutifully served ourselves some of the spaetzle. In the end it wasn’t so bad that the side arrived ridiculously late because we wouldn’t have eaten it anyway. They were cold, doughy and undercooked.
This was the point when we reflected on all the bumbling mistakes we’d noticed from the wait staff up to that point. The kitchen seemed professional enough but I suspect Senso might have taken on volunteer hospitality interns for wait staff our truffle festival launch lunch. They didn’t know how to pour champagne and left foaming dribbling messes on our tables; we had to ask for napkins; there was never enough bread or butter to share on the table; they gave each of the 6 people on our table mismatched cutlery; and lastly they had no idea what some of the dishes they served us were and surprisingly, felt no obligation to offer to find out what it was and let us know.
Luckily our party of 6 were good humoured enough to find the entertainment value in the friendly but clueless, amateurish wait staff.
The last dish to arrive was of course, the dessert. The dessert of beetroot semifreddo with truffle infused shiraz reduction wasn’t to everyone’s taste. The truffle flavour was very evident in the shiraz reduction, but the sourness so intense it locked my jaw and I glanced up to see my dining companions squinting through their own sour moment. The white chocolate mousse was smooth and creamy (at least, that’s what we thought it was – it wasn’t on the menu and we knew better than to ask our clueless waitress) and provided a bit of balance to the sour note – but there wasn’t quite enough to counteract it.
I quite enjoy sour flavours so whilst I didn’t like this, I didn’t find it too offensive, but the dessert fiends amongst our group weren’t impressed and left this dish largely untouched.
At the conclusion of the long meal, we were charged the full amount of the truffle hunt and lunch – despite having prepaid. The error was quickly cleared up but it left us disappointed at the apparent lack of organisation for the lunch.
On reflection we were very pleased that we’d done the truffle hunt. It was a unique and fascinating experience and made the $110 we paid for the truffle hunt and lunch a worthwhile and positive experience. The FineDiner arrived the night before us and remarked that the festival launch dinner she had the night before at Le Tres Bon was an entirely different experience and she couldn’t recommend enough how delicious and generous the truffle dishes she had were. It was a shame that our lunch had hits and misses (the first two courses I thought were delicious and perfect platforms for showcasing truffles) but had we driven 3.5 hours to Canberra for that lunch alone though, particularly given with the service we received, I’ve no doubt I would’ve left lunch with not just a sour but a bad taste in my mouth.
There are plenty of events being offered during the Truffle Festival including cooking classes, demonstrations, lunches and dinners so so much truffle paraphernalia on offer, it’s a good excuse for me to head back to Canberra for another truffle laden meal. The Truffle Festival events in Canberra extend into August and events in the Central Ranges should be listed on the site shortly.
Addresses and information:
The Truffle Festival site
Corner Dalby and Mildura Streets, Fyshwick (at Fyshwick markets)
View Senso in a larger map