Words: Jane Speechley Photos: Monica Tindall
While many of us have enjoyed the intoxicating aroma and earthy taste of black truffles, it was a rare treat to be able to visit the source and join in a truffle hunt at Blue Frog Truffles in Canberra, Australia.
The Canberra Region Truffle Festival is taking place during our visit (it’s on each year from June to August) so it’s the ideal time to join one of the hunts. Blue Frog Truffles is located in Sutton, NSW, about 20 minutes by car from the Canberra city centre. It’s a real insight into Australia’s ‘country capital’ – with just this short drive, we’re into real agricultural land with little indication that we’re so close to a major city.
On arrival, we’re greeted by a small group who’ll be joining us on the truffle hunt today, among them a chef from one of Canberra’s leading restaurants. Our host and the owner of the farm, Wayne, is a real local expert: he’s one of the founders of the Truffle Festival and also helped establish the region’s Truffle Grower’s Association. Pausing at the gate to the paddock where the truffles are grown, he gives us a brief talk on the history of truffles in the region and of this particular farm.
In the distance, we can already see a couple of truffle dogs and handlers walking amongst the trees, so our interest is piqued. The family-owned property doesn’t keep their own dogs, so Colin from Southern Tablelands Truffle Dogs is here with his charges, Border Collie Leroy and his junior assistant Ruby, to sniff out the targets. We’re also joined by Wayne’s son and farm co-owner Justin, who explains the process as we go along the rows.
Contrary to popular belief, all dog breeds have a good enough sense of smell to become excellent truffle dogs, so breeds are chosen more for their energy and endurance than the sensitivity of their nose. Pigs are rarely used these days – more as a novelty – because they tend to be a little aggressive and try to eat the truffles themselves.
The paddock we’re visiting is planted in the French style, with three hazelnut trees between each oak tree. The type of truffles grown here are French black truffles, and they’re actually the fruit of a fungus that infects the roots of the oak tree (in a symbiotic relationship beneficial to both tree and fungus). They also release toxins that help control weeds, so you can identify the presence of truffles by the ‘brûlée’ (French for ‘burn’) ring, a circle of bare earth around the base of each tree. As they ripen, the truffles’ fragrance is imparted into the surrounding soil, which helps the dogs to find them – the stronger the smell, the larger and riper the truffle is likely to be, when it is taken off the roots like an apple from a branch.
Regretfully, Wayne explains it hasn’t been a good year for truffles in the region. Truffles need cold weather to mature, and lots of rain and warmer temperatures with few frosts through the winter mean fewer truffles have ripened, and many that have quickly turned to rot. Nevertheless, Leroy – with occasional enthusiastic support from learner Ruby – manages to unearth a few treasure for us. It’s fantastic theatre – pacing the rows with nose to the ground, the dogs place their front paws on the spot and drop to the ground when they find a scent, and are rewarded with a small treat when they’re successful.
It’s not just the dogs who enjoy a treat at the end of a hard day of ‘truffle shuffling’ though. While we expected to be able to sample the local wares, we were truly delighted by the spread that’s put on for us when we return to the warmth and comfort of the homestead.
First we’re offered a cup of deliciously warming Truffled Creamy Parsnip Soup, and while truffles have been incorporated into the recipe, we’re invited to sprinkle additional flakes on top. Much of the truffle’s flavour comes from their aroma, which is why they’re usually sliced as thinly as possible – to ensure the greatest exposure of surface area to the air, which increases the aroma. This dish is a great example of the truffles’ ability to absolutely elevate an otherwise simple dish: the soup in itself is lovely, but the piquancy of the truffles really lifts the relatively mild flavour of the parsnips. We enjoy the soup with fresh bread smeared with butter that’s been infused with truffles as well.
We’re also encouraged to help ourselves to Truffle Infused Macadamia Nuts and Gippsland (from the Victorian region of Australia) Triple Cream Brie with a visible layer of truffle slices through the middle. The Blue Frog team advises that fats in food provide the best platform for the flavour of the truffles. They certainly offer an interesting counterpoint to the buttery sweetness of the nuts, while the creamy and generously flavoured brie is very more-ish and a real highlight.
The next two dishes proved to be my favourites of the day, though.
Truffled Mushrooms are served in a small shot glass, the mushrooms finely chopped and blended with the truffles in a creamy base, and topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan crumbs. It has to be said, it’s not the prettiest dish to look at, but it is incredibly hearty and tasty; almost smooth in texture, but with just enough bite to give it some substance.
Our final dish is a chance to sample the use of truffles in sweets, and so we enjoy a Chocolate Panna Cotta infused with truffles. To me, this combination seems like the ideal demonstration of the truffles’ strengths and versatility. The sweetness of the chocolate is enhanced to a whole new level of sophistication by the powerful, earthy addition of the black fungi, turning a usually predictable dish into quite a different experience. It really is the perfect way to conclude the meal.
Even in the chilly weather, a Canberra region truffle hunt is a lovely way to spend the afternoon – enjoying the fresh air and outdoors, admiring the dogs at work, learning a little and getting involved in the thrill of the hunt. It’s made all the more enjoyable by the celebration at the end, and Blue Frog really does an exceptional job of putting on a selection of dishes that showcase the best and most diverse uses of the star ingredient.
From the 2016 season onwards, Blue Frog will be harvesting their truffles twice per week and the public truffle hunts tend to book out quickly – so get in early if you’re planning a visit. If you fancy creating your own truffled masterpieces at home, there are also various products for sale, including truffle-infused rice (for risotto) as well as butter, salt and even honey.