As with all things out of the ordinary, there are people who are unmoved by the fuss over truffles. However, it is hard to ignore the fact Canberra is firmly in truffle season and will be until well into August. Fresh truffles have only been on our culinary radars for a relatively short time, first appearing in Tasmania in the early 1990s and Canberra since about 2007. Detractors say they are expensive, which they are, but you only need a few shavings to change a simple serve of scrambled eggs or pasta into something quite delicious. I have been a truffle fan for a few years and my favourite dish is Paris Mash with truffle oil: I particularly love Fedra Estate’s award-winning Truffle Oil. A little bit can go a long way: truffles can be finely sliced, grated and slivered into julienne strips for different recipes, and a micro plane is an essential tool. Extra mileage can also be made out of truffles by storing them with fresh eggs, infusing them with a wonderful flavour overnight. Growers say they can find truffles up to 450 grams, although the average size is about 50 grams. Last year I bought two: one was $80 and the second smaller. From memory, I used them on a couple of simple pasta dishes, adventurously made some ravioli, and scrambled eggs for four. I also made truffled Camembert, which was fairly straightforward once I had mastered slicing the truffles as finely as I possibly could (which is why I now have a micro plane!). It was deliciously decadent served warmed and runny with sourdough.
Are they ugly? Yes, but there are actually lots of other uglier things such as the poor old blobfish, voted the ugliest thing on earth in 2013. Are they hard to find? Yes, and that is why people spend so much time training their adorable truffle hounds. Is it possible you might find one in your garden under an old oak tree? The answer is a resounding ‘no’, and even less likely than finding gold. The spores that create truffles come from the Perigord in France are imported into Australia, injected into sapling oaks which are then sold to truffle farmers. It can take over 4 years for truffles to start growing.
As extraordinary as it might seem, there are some people who are really happy that June has had more cold overnight temperatures than average! These people are the truffle growers of our region, who know that cooler nights means the truffle season starts early. I met some of them at the Truffle Festival launch at the Mercure Hotel, (formerly Olims, and before that the Hotel Ainslie). With four truffle farms (known as truffiere) in our region, there have already been a few truffle hunts and truffle-based gourmet lunches, and they are all geared up to offer a whole range of truffle-related events for the 2017 Canberra Region Truffle Festival. Like other people who have invested in developing a culinary regional profile, there is no doubt there is a real opportunity to export into Asia through the direct flights from Canberra International Airport to Singapore. More than one person has spoken enthusiastically to me about meetings they have had with Chinese and Malaysian importers. Truffles are very popular in Asia and, mercifully, travel well.
Damian Robinson from Turalla Truffles near Bungendore, who is a major mover and shaker in the local truffle industry, brought along two adorable truffle hounds: Frisbee and four-month-old Gecko, a little truffle-hound-in-training. These two perfectly behaved dogs assisted Damian to explain how a truffle hunt actually progresses. Both went through their paces with precision, found the concealed truffles and were well-rewarded with meaty treats while the truffle was surreptitiously removed for safety.
Following the ‘mock’ truffle hunt and official launch by the Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, MLA, there was a minor stampede as we all headed indoors to warm up in front of the Mercure’s beautiful wood fire. I had forgotten how lovely the original1927 timber paneling is and I do like the way original furnishings, cabinets of silver, typewriters and an early radio, have been incorporated into the warm decor.
The chef at the Mercure had whipped up a series of yummy mini-dishes and we were all delighted to be able to taste some different ways these precious fungi. A small group of keen cooks got in a huddle and agreed that what we were given to taste was deceptively simple and we were all keen to try the same recipes at home. We started our tasting with a creamy leek and potato soup with shaved truffle.
This was followed by polenta with a lightly poached egg topped with shaved truffle, and a delicious frittata with, you guessed it, shaved truffle. Regrettably, I had to turn down a Croque-monsieur with a touch of truffle, but it is a perfect weekend brunch recipe to try.
So, if you decide you are just a little bit curious, there are a whole lot of Truffle Festival activities you can enjoy. Sixteen restaurants across Canberra are featuring truffles on their winter menus, and truffles are readily available to purchase at a number of outlets, including Wiffens at the Fyshwick Fresh Food Markets.
If you are just a bit nervous about investing in a whole truffle, then here is the event just for you. Westfield Belconnen is hosting a Truffle Market Day this coming Saturday 24 June and will have a second event at Westfield Woden on Saturday 22 July. Chefs, truffle growers, and wineries from around the region will be at Westfield Belconnen cooking up a storm. You are invited to join in the fun, enjoy free samples, purchase a fresh truffle, and see the range of truffle products. There will be live cooking demonstrations at 10 am, 12 noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm, and there will be regional wines matched to the dishes, including truffle ice cream in a brandy basket!
There are lots more events planned for this year’s Festival which runs through to August, with information available on the 2017 Canberra Region Truffle Festival website. Maybe you are just a little bit tempted to find out what the fuss is all about?
All photos by Maryann Mussared