I wish I had a truffle for every time I had driven past French Black Truffles of Canberra over the last few years. I had often wondered about the trufferie and had wanted sit down and chat with the owner. So when an invitation to a VIP twilight truffle hunt and cook arrives via email, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to visit!
After greeting me at the farm gate, the lovely Sherry McArdle-English, owner of French Black Truffles of Canberra, tells me that she is really excited about the 2015 truffle season. 'We think this year is going to be a big year, Liz. We had a good year last year and took about 65 kilos out of the ground. This year we are expecting about 150 kilos!'
I asked Sherry to tell me how she became Canberra's only truffle grower. 'It's a bit of an interesting story,' she raised her eyebrows and replied with a gentle smile. 'I am a qualified counsellor and my husband, Gavin, is a civil engineer and we had never been near a farm until 1997. My husband owned and ran one of the largest civil engineering companies here in Canberra. He was also a sportaholic and a very driven man. At the age of 55 he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.'
'That came as a huge shock and three days after the diagnosis he woke up in the morning and said "I'm buying a farm!". I was a bit horrified and couldn't think of anything worse, because we lived in the heart of Canberra city, and four months later we were buying the farm. So, it was a HUGE lifestyle change, but I had to be sensible about it. When I thought about it, we were ten minutes from Canberra Airport, ten minutes from the Parliamentary Triangle, and ten minutes from the front door of David Jones (a major department store in the city). It all fell into place and made sense. Really, it was nothing more than a lifestyle change.'
'We both went on with our career paths until 2004 when Gavin had two serious heart attacks and was very unwell. It was then that we had to sell the civil engineering company. And from that I realised we needed to have quality time together. Here we were on the farm, not expecting to retire at the age we were, and so I started looking for a hobby. And the hobby became the truffle farm.'
'So you hadn't planted for the truffles at that stage? I asked. 'No, they were planted in 2004 and now we have 2,500 trees in the ground, which makes us one of the largest truffle farms on the east coast of Australia. And, we have now seriously moved from being a hobby farm to a commercial operation.' I smile and offer my congratulations. 'Thank you, Liz', Sherry responds.
More congratulations are in order, as from 2004 to 2015, the farm has grown and grown. French Black Truffles of Canberra is now listed with Visit Canberra as one of the winter destinations in Australia's capital. 'Yes, thank you, look I'm terribly excited about that. Visit Canberra have been extremely generous to me and the farm. And I think it's because when I started the farm as a hobby, I had a vision and a business plan that if it did in fact become successful, I would like to move into tourism. And so when you walk around the farm today, you can see that there are old historic farming implements. We've got a lovely dam that sits right next to a purpose-built truffle shed, and we're really well set up for tourism. Because mine is the only truffle farm in the ACT, it means that it is very, very easy for people to access the farm.'
'Whether people go on a 'truffle hunt', or whether they go on a 'hunt and cook', it's a new experience for them. I'm represented in the Visitor Centre on Northbourne Avenue and a lot of people are learning about us via the internet as well. The people at Visit Canberra have realised that I am a pedantic person who likes it to be right. The same with the tourism component. I like that people are welcome here in such a way that they embrace the experience and enjoy it. That's what tourism is all about.'
French Black Truffles of Canberra trufferie...
'Now that you have an established truffle farm these many years later, Sherry, what's your favourite way of using the truffle?' I asked. 'Oh look, that's an easy one. In the first four or five years of having truffles, I was bewildered and I really needed assistance with how to use them. But now I know that there is only one way to use them. And that is to infuse as much food with them as you can. So Liz, I'll give you an example. People want to have a truffled egg experience or scrambled eggs with truffle. You take half a dozen eggs and put them into a glass jar with a truffle. Cover it with cling wrap and put into the fridge for 48 hours. What happens is that the aroma and the taste of the truffle is so intense that it permeates the shell of the egg and goes into the egg and you now have truffled eggs. It's a fabulous way to use truffle. And, as well as that, you still have your truffle. You haven't used it yet, you've just infused.'
'The next thing you can do is use your eggs. Make an omelette or scrambled eggs or boiled eggs for breakfast. Then you take your truffle and immerse it into a jar of fresh cream. Put it in the fridge. Leave it for 48 hours. When you bring it out and take the truffle out of the jar of cream, you now have a jar of truffled cream! Whip the cream and put it on top of fresh, hot apple pie, or fresh, hot rhubarb pie. It is magnificent! You can also make a sauce for your steak. You can put truffle into all sorts of things. You are only limited by your imagination. And if you are infusing, you still have your truffle. You can use the cream into a sauce for pasta and then shave a little truffle over the top. I love truffles, my husband doesn't.' I sympathise with Sherry, as my man is much the same.
'Tell me, how long will fresh truffle last in the refrigerator,' I asked. 'A fresh truffle has a shelf life of twelve days. You cannot successfully freeze it. A truffle is 97% water, so when it's defrosted, it becomes mushy and you don't have that good, firm texture that allows you to shave or grate it. Frozen truffle is only suitable for, say, mashing in cauliflower soup, or using it in butter. But if you want the true, fresh ingredient, you have twelve days.
Finally, I ask Sherry which of our local establishments she supplies with her French black truffles. 'The truffles go to a wide circle of people within Canberra. I supply the Arboretum, Parliament House, The Boathouse, Pod Food, Pialligo Estate, Kurrajong Hotel, Mount Majura Vineyard (next door) and Sage. I am also the sole supplier to the Fyshwick Markets, and I supply Essential Ingredient, which is where members of the public can buy them. More and more we are supplying out. And we balance what we have with who we supply. It's constantly growing. As a way of value-adding to the business, the people we supply are invited here for a truffle hunt and are taught about cooking with truffles. The farm has always been focussed on educating the community about truffles, as have I,' Sherry concludes. 'Now, let's go on a truffle hunt!'
I didn't know what it was. So I went to the Fyshwick Markets one Saturday afternoon and asked one of the store owners if they had ever had truffles in stock. The Italian greengrocer laughed at me and said I wouldn't find truffles in Australia. "Only the Europeans grew truffles," he said.'
'Well, what a challenge! For me, with my personality type! That was the point at which the gauntlet was thrown. I came home and spent the afternoon researching. Stopped for dinner, then kept researching. By 3am, I had made the decision that we would grow truffles.'
'So did you try ordering any from overseas or instate, Sherry? I asked. 'No, what I did was two weeks later, my husband and I were on a six o'clock flight to Tasmania, the region where truffles were first planted in Australia. We spent one day in Tassie. We visited three truffle farms. We met the dogs. We saw the trees. We smelled the truffle. We saw the truffle. And I was just beside myself with excitement at this whole new venture that was being created in my mind. On the other hand, my husband wasn't so excited. In fact, he didn't want to go to Tasmania and he wasn't interested in the truffles. He wanted a vineyard. So, I had taken him down there under protest. As we flew back in the plane, he had just two things to say to me. The first was: "How much did you say these things are". To which I told him that they are about $2500 AUD a kilo. To which he said "which paddock do you want to use?". So that was it! A few days later we were digging up the paddock.'
Truffle hunt with Snuffle and Sherry...
Introducing Jayson the farm manager...
Sherry introduces Jayson Mesman, farm manager, dog handler and a good friend. 'Jayson will be out there doing the majority of the actual digging for truffles on the truffle hunts. I will be here doing the quality assurance in the shed before the truffles go out, and I also do the deliveries. So I get the face to face feedback. Between us I think we make a pretty good team. We also have someone who works on the farm three days a week as well.'
Jayson has worked for and with Sherry at French Black Truffles of Canberra for seven years. He has five labradors and a German shepherd (Samson, Simba, Nala, Willow and Bear). Indeed, Jayson has been training dogs for some 15 years. 'What we do on the farm is called "positive reinforcement". The dogs like to have fun, as well as work. So we give them play rewards as well. Samson is the 'star of the show along with Snuffle', Jayson explains.
This year there are pigs on the farm too, a flashback to the European side of truffle hunting originally. 'It's the traditional way of finding truffles,' Jayson explains. 'Being in the heart of Canberra, pigs are not that common. People can come and see them, and get to pat them. They are really friendly, but they don't realise how big they are at times,' he laughs. The pigs, Wessex Saddlebacks, are seven months old and are in the process of being trained to hunt truffles. 'It's a challenge,' Jayson explains. 'They are natural at foraging and finding truffles, but they are not as good as the dogs. The dogs are easier to train and are better at finding the best truffles. We will probably use the pigs towards the end of the season to find some of the old, rotted truffles. Hopefully through that process they will inoculate the trees with their droppings too.'
In short, Jayson loves his work, loves truffles, loves the farm and loves the cold. 'It is really a wonderful job and people should be interested in the industry,' he says. His favourite is a simple toasted sandwich with truffled brie or truffled creme brulee.
The twilight hunt and cook...
Back at the Truffle Shed...
Chef Andrew Haskins from 3Seeds Cooking School was busy in the kitchen when we got back to the shed. Over the course of an hour or more, he talked the group through cooking with truffles and prepared a cauliflower, black truffle and pecorino soup; followed by a 'pillow' of butter puff with pan seared prawns in truffle scented butter. Next there was breast of spatchcock filled with truffle-infused Petite Delice brie. Then a medallion of infused veal fillet with wild mushroom and truffle and sherry jus. And then the pièce de résistance, chocolate truffle truffle with sweet black PX sherry.
Good Things attended the Twilight Truffle Hunt and Cook event at French Black Truffles of Canberra as a guest of Sherry McArdle-English. Thank you, Sherry! Opinions expressed are my own and this is not a sponsored post. Watch Good Things for my upcoming feature on hints and tips for using truffles, with chef Andrew Haskins from 3Seeds Cooking School.
The truffle season in Canberra runs from June to late August so book now to secure your tickets for a truffle hunt with French Black Truffles of Canberra.
Tell me dear readers, have you ever had the pleasure of going on a truffle hunt in your part of the world? Did you enjoy it?
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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- Liz Posmyk
NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.