The excitement was palpable, despite the bitter cold, thick fog and mud that enveloped us when we arrived at Turalla Truffles near Bungendore one Sunday morning in July last year. Frisbee (pictured above), a key member of the team of trained truffle dogs, was there to greet us; together with property owners, Damian Robinson and his wife, Lindsay, and their daughter, Willa (pictured left, second image below).
The truffle hunt...
Accompanying me is Carmen Pearce-Brown, a good friend and fellow food enthusiast, who also happens to be a third-generation beekeeper with Canberra's Honey Delight. A country girl, it's her first time ever on a truffle hunt and she's all smiles, which makes me smile as well.
After Damian, Lindsay and Willa give a warm welcome to the small group of intrepid truffle hunters, we pile into one of three vehicles, which weave their way up the winding track to the main house and truffière. On the short but bumpy drive, Carmen, Willa and I giggle and chat about truffles, bees, honey, cows, boarding school and Pokémon Go. Carmen captured this fun shot from the front seat with her iPad.
We step out of the vehicle, carefully avoiding the good-sized cow pats, and then compare our Wellingtons. Mine are borrowed from a friend. The Burberry looks rather dull against Carmen's striking red and black Sloggers, which match her hat beautifully. She's such a fashionista!
We line up at the gate to the truffière, where it's essential that we step into a foot bath. Chlorine-based bleach reduces the introduction of foreign soil and plant material, and prevents the spread of unwanted fungi and soil-borne disease. The puppies have to have their feet cleaned too.
Once we are through the gate and out in the open of the truffle orchard with its expansive views to Lake George, I note that the fog is even denser. Now, I'm ever-so glad I heeded Damian's advice to dress appropriately. "It's been wet, wet, wet and will be muddy and BLOODY COLD, so come prepared," he instructed in his email confirming our booking. He was right. It's definitely the sort of depths-of winter-outing that calls for several layers of clothing, topped with a jacket, beanie, gloves, scarf, thick socks and gloves.
Damian tells us that black Périgord truffle, named after a region in France, is the fruiting body of the fungus, Tuber melanosporum. This fungus forms a "symbiotic relationship" with the roots of oak and hazel trees, and the fruiting body, the edible truffle, is harvested in winter once it has matured. Climate and soil conditions have to be just right to grow this most highly valued truffle, he explains. A good season will follow a hot, dry summer and a crisp, frosty winter.
We need to look out for areas of dieback at the base of the tree, indicating fungal activity in the soil beneath. Damian asks that we don't step inside that area, because that's where the truffles will have formed. It's not long before Frisbee, Three Spot and Eight are pointing out truffles.
Damian kneels down, grabs a handful of earth and buries his face into it. You can smell a ripe truffle, he says with a grin - a piece of dirt on the end of his nose. The group gathers around and listens intently as Damian explains the difference between the scent of a good truffle and one that's over ripe, or not quite ready.
We move from tree to tree, with the dogs hard at work, and Damian frequently on his knees, scraping into the soil, bringing up clumps and sniffing them. Suddenly he unearths a cluster that's bigger than his fist. This is a good one, he says with a wide smile. Later, it weighs in at close to 400g!
Eight, Three Spot and Frisbee have done a good day's work and are rewarded with each precious find.
Hunting for truffles can be a tiring business, especially in the cold. Just ask Eight, the truffle dog.
Cooking after the truffle hunt...
Back at the house, Rosa (a great cook and popular character, well known for her delicious food stall, Rosa's Home Bake at the Capital Region Farmer's Market), is in the kitchen preparing fresh pasta.
"Cheers," says Carmen, as she watches Rosa run a yard of pasta dough through the KitchenAid.
Damian is a genuinely happy soul, and is in his element both out on the farm and in the kitchen. I'm in awe of his cooking expertise, as he prepares a generous batch of potato rosti, followed by lightly-seared Hokkaido scallops, which will sit on top. They are served with black truffle, of course.
Truffle-themed lunch out in the garden...
By lunchtime, the fog has lifted and the sun has poked out from behind the clouds. It's warm enough to sit in the courtyard and eat al fresco. Damian and Lindsay have a truly beautiful garden on their property and it's such a treat for us to be here.
Damian's truffled menu...
Truffled camembert and other snacks to start, followed by scallop nest (a lightly-seared Hokkaido scallop on an small potato rosti drizzled with melted truffle butter and heated with a splash of Madeira), finished with a shave of truffle.
Truffle butter (and a bit of truffle infused cream) tossed through freshly-made pappardelle with grated truffle-infused pecorino on top, accompanied by truffle-infused chicken tenderloin fried in truffle butter (combined with truffle-infused pecorino bread crumbs). And served with a fresh garden salad.
Truffle ice-cream and truffle-infused cream topped with smashed truffle-infused honey-roasted hazelnuts. And to finish, truffle-infused vodka shots. The meal is exquisite from start to finish.
Lindsay & Damian dish the dirt on truffles & other good things...
I managed to snaffle some time with our generous hosts, Lindsay and Damian, so I asked them a few probing questions. They are a warm, delightful and down-to-earth couple, no pun intended, although it is a most fitting description of truffle farmers, yes?. シ Our conversation follows below:
What was the inspiration behind the establishment of the truffle farm?
Lindsay: The 200 year old oaks in the garden... and Damian.
Damian: When we moved to Bungendore in 2000, I read about the first Australian truffle that had been grown in Tasmania under Robur oaks. As we have several old oak trees in our garden, I thought they might be able to be inoculated, so I contacted the grower. It turned out that they couldn't, but I then became interested in truffles and, after some research, we decided to plant inoculated trees.
The rest is history.
Was the last season kind to you?
Lindsay: It didn’t last as long, so I didn’t get as tired.
Damian: Despite the fact that the summer was extremely dry and the winter was extremely, wet it turned out quite well. Our yield was slightly higher than the previous year.
How many hunts did you do last season?
Lindsay: Every Sunday we do one for visitors and then one or two a week for fresh produce to sell.
Damian: We did ten public hunts, about half of which were 'hunt then cook' days. Both were extremely popular and we have expanded our kitchen facilities this year to meet the 'hunt and then cook' demand. Not long after last year's season ended, I took several enquiries wanting to book for 2017!
What’s your favourite way with using truffles?
Lindsay: The obvious, fresh pasta, truffle butter, and maybe a bit of cream and fresh truffle thrown on top.
Damian: Infusion is the way to go. You can't beat truffle butter melted in a pan, then tossed through fresh pappardelle pasta. Add some truffle infused cream and truffle infused Pecorino cheese. Shave some fresh truffle on top for the hero shot!
How many cattle do you raise on the property?
Lindsay: We have about 350 lovely calves here at the moment
Generally speaking, what’s your philosophy on food?
Lindsay: Fresh, yummy and, if possible, good for you
Damian: Taste and smell everything and don't be afraid to experiment. Read cookbooks, then freestyle. Concentrate on getting your texture mix right. Trust your palate.
Who is the cook in the household?
Linsday: That's easy. It's Damian, I eat marmalade on toast if I have to cook.
Damian: Me… and my daughters if they’re around. I’m one of three boys who had a mother who worked full time. She’s a good cook and taught us all well, so we were expected to have dinner organised when she got home. All three of us are the cooks in our families.
What key ingredients go into the market basket each week?
Lindsay: Spinach. About two years ago we started growing it. Oh, and yummy bread. I'm trying my hand at baking it. We eat our own beef, so cheeses and milk, and more veggies, fruit and herbs.
Damian: I do all the shopping so don’t believe what Lindsay writes. シ Outside truffle season I’m big on Asian-fusion, so lots of Asian greens, garlic, ginger and various sauces. I do have to add that cauliflower is something I like to use several meals a week. I just can’t get enough of it. It’s so damned good so may ways!
What key ingredients do you always keep in the larder?
Lindsay: Puréed tomatoes
Damian: Sesame oil, oyster sauce, eater chestnuts, honey, soy sauce, bamboo shoots, Japanese noodles. And there’s always homemade stock in the freezer.
Who, if any, are your food heroes and what inspires you?
Lindsay: I’m dead impressed with how Damian can open a sad, empty fridge and still create something yummy!
Damian: Heston is always interesting. Luke Nguyen and David Thompson for Asian. Giorgio Locatelli for Italian. Even though he prefers Tuber magnatum (Italian White) to Melanosporum (French Black) truffle, I love the stories in his cookbooks and have made all of my kids learn to cook his epic five-page risotto recipe. They all make a bloody good Risotto now!
Cookbooks, if you use them, do you prefer to keep the pages pristine, or do you like them splattered with butter and oil?
Lindsay: I give them a wipe.
Damian: I love my cookbooks and treat them with care, but they do get a little sticky at times.
And finally, what’s for dinner tonight?
Lindsay: I am unsure, but think Damian mentioned stir-fry.
Damian: Tonight we are having butterflied lamb, accompanied by young bok choy drizzled with hot sesame oil and soy, alongside some pureed creamed cauliflower.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincerest gratitude to Damian and Lindsay for hosting us for the truffle hunt, cook and lunch adventure. It was such a privilege to have been invited into your home. Carmen and I thoroughly enjoyed the day. Thank you, again.
Winter Program at Turalla Truffles...
The first truffle hunt of the 2017 season will be held at Turalla Truffles near Bungendore on Sunday, 11 June 2017; with events running through until early August (dependent on the season). Bookings are essential for all events. For dates, details and more information, please visit the Turalla Truffles web site.
The Good Things team enjoyed the Hunt, Cook and Lunch Experience during the 2016 Truffle Festival as guests of Turalla Truffles. Thank you kindly! This is not a sponsored post. All opinions expressed are our own.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.