'Find the truffle', Denzil Sturgiss says to his trusty cocker spaniel, Tom. We walk a short while and moments later Tom scratches the earth beneath an oak tree and Denzil is down on the ground sniffing the soil, before carefully extracting a good-sized black truffle.
We're visiting Tarago Truffles as part of the Canberra and Capital Region Truffle Festival. Peter and I haven't been to a truffiere and are both looking forward to experiencing a truffle hunt. Our noses and fingers are soon put to the test, as Denzil teaches us to sniff the earth in search of that interesting truffle aroma and shows us how to gently dig around the lumpy mass that will reveal a precious French black truffle or 'black diamond' (Tuber melanosporum).
Denzil and Anne Sturgiss, and their son, Matthew, run Tarago Truffles at Gap Hill. Denzil is a down to earth kind of fellow, no pun intended. 'I was born just over the hill at Ataweenah, my father's property on Mayfield Road, Tarago', he tells us. 'I've owned and managed rural properties throughout my life. A while back, I managed 8,000 acres at Wood Lawn at the mine, with 10,000 dry sheep equivalent. There were 600 deer and 400 head of cattle'.
Denzil and Anne bought Gap Hill in 1992 and have established a successful truffiere, with a mixture of 4,500 oak and hazelnut trees planted on three hectares. 'We only have a handful of cattle and sheep now,' Denzil says. 'You don't have to drench truffles and they don't get out of the fence,' he adds with a smile.
The Sturgiss family is one of 150 Australian truffle growers. Relatively new to Australia, truffles are grown in every State and Territory, except the Northern Territory. The season runs from May through to August and truffles are harvested using specially trained dogs. According the organisers of the Canberra and Capital Region Truffle Festival, there are 30 growers in the region and many young trees are yet to produce. This will eventually see Canberra as a major truffle centre and food tourism destination in winter.
For the uninitiated, truffles grow underground from truffle 'mycorrhiza' that is applied to the roots of hazelnut and oak trees. Truffles are sold by weight in grams, and variations in grading affect the price. As an example, a 20g truffle is around the size of a squash ball and may cost $60.00 or more. If you are wondering why truffles are so expensive, it takes some time for them to appear, sometimes four or five years, perhaps longer. The truffles are harvested by hand and the trees need to be checked for truffles twice a week. It is labour intensive work and harvesters spend a lot of time down on their hands and knees with their nose to the ground.
On our truffle hunt, we quickly learn that Denzil's dog, Tom, may be old, but he has a keen sense of smell and is a cleverly trained truffle sniffer. If the truffle isn't ready, he won't touch it, Denzil explains. The perfume stays in the ground after the truffle has been harvested. Therefore, sometimes when Tom scratches the ground, there may not be a truffle, just the scent of one that was there. Denzil also explains that just because you find a truffle, you don't necessarily pull it up, as it may not be ready. 'Some years ago, we identified a truffle. Ten weeks later, we harvested it. It was a beautiful truffle!,' Denzil recalls. We learn that when you harvest truffles, you need to check carefully, as there could be another truffle underneath or close by.
After the truffle hunt, Anne Sturgiss was on hand with a mug of delicious, hot cauliflower soup served with grated cheese and shavings of fresh truffle. Anne says her favourite recipe with truffles is scrambled eggs, and advises that truffles should be stored in a glass jar lined with kitchen towelling and kept in the refrigerator. Once a day, take the lid off the jar and allow the truffle to breathe for a few minutes, Anne says. Fresh is best, so use your truffle within one to three weeks of purchase. To shave a truffle, use a truffle shaver, or a sharp vegetable peeler.
Matthew Sturgiss says you can tell a good truffle firstly by the aroma, then the colour and the skin. A good truffle is firm and has a good earthy aroma that is strong. 'There is nothing else like the aroma of a fresh truffle', Matthew says. I think he's right!
For more information and FAQs on truffles, click here. There are some lovely truffle recipes here. The Canberra and Capital Region Truffle Festival continues until 31 July. There are truffle hunts, truffle cooking classes, truffles at the markets across Canberra, and truffle degustations and special truffle dinners at various restaurants in the ACT. Scroll down to read about our lunch at Dieci e Mezzo. For a full program of events, visit the web site.
Watch Gordon Hammond's Doggy Cam and see Tom at work seeking out the best truffles. Video appears courtesy of and with kind thanks Sally and Gordon Hammond.
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.