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Hunting black gold at the Canberra truffle festival
A world-beating -- and expensive -- food success story from Australia's capital
Since Roman times at least, foodies in Europe have been going gaga for truffles -- specifically, the Black, or Périgord, Truffle -- as one of the rarest treats a gourmand can find on a dinner plate.
A subterranean fungus that under certain conditions grows around the roots of oak, willow and hazelnut trees, the Black Truffle is among the most elusive and expensive foodstuffs on earth, selling for up to US$2,500 a kilo.
Horticulturalists in North America, China, New Zealand and other locations with a suitable climate have tried cash in on the craze by starting trufferies -- yes, it’s a word -- of their own.
But the results have been more hit than miss.
A successful New World truffery might harvest its first truffle within 10 years or so, though most will never grow a single truffle at all.
But in the farmland region surrounding the Australian capital, Canberra, and the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, there are around 20 small trufferies where Black Truffles are being harvested at specially inoculated hazelnut orchards as young as four years.
Purveyors of fine foods and chefs in Canberra have been quick to snap up their wares and partake in the annual Canberra & Capital Region Truffle Festival.
Now in its third year, the festival comprises a series of truffle dinners, truffle cooking classes and truffle hunts with accommodation packages in the area.
Every Sunday morning throughout the festival, tourists converge on the Blue Frog Truffle Farm at Sutton near the Canberra-New South Wales border for an old-fashioned truffle hunt.
There, they spend two hours following trained truffle dogs and their handlers around a windblown orchard in the search for black gold.
“We can hunt for truffles in just about any conditions: rain, hail or snow, except for wind,” says truffle grower Michael Gardiner. “It throws the dog off the scent.”
The five-hectare property with 2,000 hazelnut trees produces about 50-60 kilos of truffles annually.
Pickings this year have been slim, but on the morning we visited, the dogs discovered seven truffles, including an unusually large 330-gram specimen.
“This is a very expensive and popular food in the good restaurants in China,” says tour member Sandy Sun from Beijing.
“We wanted to see where they come from, so we came to Canberra. Not every city has this tour.
“What’s it like? It smells like seafood but tastes like a vegetable. Very strange, but good to eat. I like it,” she says.
Blue Frog Truffle Hunts depart at 9.30 a.m. from the lobby of Canberra’s Crowne Plaza Hotel through to August.
Tickets are $60 (US$61) per person and include a cup of mushroom truffle soup and the chance to buy freshly dug truffles at $2 a gram.
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A Canberra institution, the Fyshwick Markets are dedicated to the sale of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood at delicatessens, bakeries and other local stores.
Throughout the truffle festival, its 25 shops and stalls sell a variety of truffle products as well as fresh whole truffles.
To help consumers understand how to handle truffles, Fyshwick Market’s 3seeds Cooking School holds weekly truffle cooking classes, followed by lunch with matching wines.
“Foods with high fat content, like butter, chicken, cream and eggs, as well as mushrooms which don’t have a strong taste but which are good at absorbing the flavor of other foods, are suitable for cooking with truffles,” says principal Andrew Haskins.
At the three-hour class, students learn hands-on how to make truffle butter, truffled scrambled eggs, ling fillets and shrimp with mushroom cream and truffle sauce, as well as chicken breast filled with truffled Brie cheese.
“Truffles are interesting,” Haskins adds.” Just when you think you’ve cracked it and know what foods they work with, they don’t.”
The son of Italian migrants from Calabria in southern Italy, one of Europe’s prime Black Truffle regions, chef Pasquale Trimboli is no stranger to the lure of black gold.
His current interest was piqued when a farmer visited his restaurant Mezzalira in Canberra a few years ago to sell him a locally grown Black Truffle.
“Back then, we thought Australian truffles were not as good as they could be, but the industry was in its infancy and that was expected,” says Trimboli.
“Today they’re a lot better -- we’ve been getting a lot of tourists coming and saying they really want to sample truffles.
“So this year we joined the Truffle Festival and are offering a six-course truffle-tasting menu matched with Italian wines.”
Among the six-courses are slow-cooked Blackmore Wagyu Brisket with cauliflower puree and shaved local Black Truffle; truffled risotto with seared sea scallops; and chocolate torte with Black Truffle honey gelato.
“It’s one thing to have truffles and another thing to use them properly,” says Trimboli. “Our first attempt at the gelato was 100-percent truffle and it tasted like frozen mushroom risotto -- too overpowering.
“Then we mixed in honey and now I think it works very well. The first taste is a bit strange but it grows on you very quickly.”
Mezzalira, corner of London Circuit and West Row, Canberra, +61 (0) 2 6230 0025; open Monday-Saturday. The truffle tasting menu is $135 or $165 with matching wines, bookings essential; www.mezzalira.com.au
3seeds, Fyshwick Markets, corner of Dalby and Mildura streets, Fyshwick, Canberra, +61 (0) 2 6259 7722. Truffle cooking classes for children are held on Friday and for adults on Saturday; $155 per person or $210 for a couple; www.3seeds.com.au
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