We arrive at the truffière at Willandra Lane, Tarago on a depths of winter weekend morning, yet despite the pea soup outside, the rural views from the dining room window of Anne and Denzil's toasty warm cottage are breathtaking.
Anne and Denzil Sturgiss are the kind of folk most of us would love to have as neighbours. Indeed, Peter and I would happily to adopt them as 'family'. They are both easy-going, exceptionally good company (Anne is a delight and Denzil has a wonderful sense of humour), and they also happen to own a successful truffière, Tarago Truffles, on their Gap Hills property at Tarago.
It's truffle season and Peter and I have been invited to visit for a cuppa, followed by a truffle hunt (our second) with Denzil and Dalene Devonshire, expert dog trainer and truffle harvester. Chatting over a cup of tea and biscuits, I asked Anne their background. Anne explains that she is the eldest of six and was born in Albury in 1946, but grew up on a grazing property. When she was two years old, her father took up a soldier settlers block to the east of Lake George in the Tarago district, where the family ran sheep and cattle. Denzil is the youngest of six and was born in Goulburn in 1944 and grew up on his family's property, Ataweenah, on the Mayfield Road - also in the Tarago distirct. His father had sheep and cattle too. Anne and Denzil raised their children (and ran cattle and sheep themselves) on a property called Virginia, hear the Shoalhaven River... 'a magnificent spot with a lovely big old homestead,' Anne reminisces. In 1992, the couple bought Gap Hills at Tarago and planted their first hectare of hazelnut and oak trees in 2002. They moved to the property in 2008 and now have some 4,300 trees growing on nine hectares, supplying fine quality truffles to leading local restaurants and truffle-loving home cooks; as well as Duncan Garvey of Perigord Truffles in Tasmania.
Postcards and morsels from our truffle hunt...
The dogs are excited and raring to go. Tom, the floppy eared Springer Spaniel is 'about a dozen years old', Denzil tells me. He's a gentle old fellow, Tom, that is... but a darned good truffle dog despite his years. Lucy, the lively and attentive Border Collie accompanying owner, Dalene, gives herself a back rub on the grass before we head into the truffle grove. Before long, both dogs are sniffing and scratching at the base of trees searching for that distinctive aroma... and then the earth reveals its rich bounty of black truffles.
Old Tom is a darned good truffle dog despite his years...
Before long, both dogs are sniffing and scratching at the base of trees...
And the earth reveals its rich bounty... truffles, 'acknowledged as the supreme fruit of the soil,' according to food, writer Eric Rolls. Yes, we agree!
This man 'nose' a good truffle... 'it has a heavenly scent'.
'A good truffle smells amazingly good. But it's a very personal thing,' one of my food heroes, gourmet farmer and chef, Matthew Evans, says in his tome, The Real Food Companion. 'A good truffle doesn't smell like [infused/artificial] truffle oil. it smells much deeper, much older, much more complex. It's like a slow-ripened banana compared to banana flavouring. Or a fine old burgundy compared to cheap cordial. And each truffle has its own aroma, some more earthy, some more lifted, some almost touching on the forbidden. It's the smell of life at its most pleasant.'
As Tom watches on, Denzil flags the spot where a truffle has been taken... and then 'leaps' to his feet...
Lucy loves her work... and her owner!
Dalene reaches the end of the row... the newer plantings can be seen across the dam...
Lucy watches Dalene with interest...
Yep, it's a good one!
The truffière or truffle grove comprises a mixture of hazelnut and oak trees...
Violets grow in a bed near the fence. Denzil plans to grow them under the trees, as is sometimes done in France...
'The Shed' where the washing, drying, packing and posting takes place...
Back in the cosy kitchen with Anne...
'Truffles are acknowledged as the supreme fruit of the soil.'
On cooking with truffles...
Anne says, 'Liz, this may sound a little crazy but one of our favourite ways of enjoying truffle is at breakfast time when we shave it over piping hot porridge that also has lashings of banana, cream and brown sugar! We love our winter porridge and find that it sticks with us right through to what is often a late lunch when we are working. We also enjoy truffled (scrambled) eggs every so often, quite like truffled potato mash and very much enjoy the occasional truffled pasta.' Anne's pasta recipe appears below:
Boil 2.5 litres of water to which you have added 50g of salt. Add 250g of Fettucini. When the pasta is al dente, draw off a cup of the water before draining the pasta. Return pot to heat, add some butter and finely sliced garlic, a little chilli flake and some sea salt. Gently cook until fragrant. Add the steaming pasta to this sauce, plus the reserved cup of water (that pasta was cooked in). Toss a little and then add cream and shaved parmigiana. Serve hot with truffle shaved over the top.
My friend, Adam Moore, a corporate chef based in Sydney, says that truffles are one of his favourite ingredients and amongst his prized possessions is a French oak truffle slicer purchased on a trip to France. Adam says he has tried truffles in Italy, Spain and France, but thinks Australian truffles are 'up there as the best'. He adds that he doesn't like how some chefs 'hide' the truffle in a mayonnaise or a sauce.... truffles should be 'shown and seen' he says, especially Australian truffle. As an example, Adam's soft poached eggs with buttered sourdough and Bernaise sauce, freshly made with freshly shaved truffle added at the table is the perfect marriage; or Adam suggests freshly made Paperdelle with really good extra virgin olive oil, chopped parsley, shaved manchego cheese and a good shaving of truffle, then lightly seasoned. Delicious, no?!
The Australian Truffle Growers' Association has put together an informative fact sheet for chefs. A few of the more interesting points that I noted are:
For more inspiration, see the recipes and cooking videos on the Truffle Festival web site.
The rural views from the dining room window of Anne and Denzil's toasty warm cottage are breathtaking...
The Canberra and Capital Region Truffle Festival...
The 2013 Canberra and Capital Region Truffle Festival is underway and, with 40 participating venues, the event is the biggest ever held. Some of Canberra's top restaurants are on board with dining experiences offering themed truffle degustations and truffle menus, truffle master classes, talks and cooking demonstrations.
There are truffle hunts across the region's truffières and you can buy truffles direct from the grower afterwards. Truffles can be purchased fresh from producers at stalls at the Capital Region Farmer's Market. The Fyshwick Markets are also offering truffles and truffled products for purchase. There are free truffle demonstrations at Fyshwick Markets every Sunday throughout the festival from 10.30-11.30; and 3Seeds is offering cooking classes for adults and children. The Belconnen Markets are also offering customers the opportunity to buy truffles this year. For more information about the Truffle Festival, visit the web site. There's loads of information about truffles, as well as recipes, videos, Festival events; and also information to help you with planning your trip to the region. So, come on folks... visit Canberra!
AND NOW TO OUR TARAGO TRUFFLES
I'm Liz, a.k.a Bizzy Lizzy,
the writer, cook and traveller behind
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.