The Winter landscape as we’re driving to Canberra is harsh. Withered trees with greying branches lie dormant until a couple of months’ time when they will burst into colour. Brown leaves cling to branches, curled up like fists and from behind the greying clouds burst rays of welcome sunshine. Canberra’s cold is bone chilling and winters grey but there is one great advantage of the area in Winter: truffle season and the truffle festival.
Legend has it that Canberra’s first truffle dog was an Australian Federal Police dog that learned how to hunt the aromatic treasures. And when we pull up to Pankhurst Winery for our first taste of truffles, wine dog Abbie greets us. She’s a wannabe truffle dog (or really a truffle eater). We’re peckish from the three and a half hour drive from Sydney and a tasting of Pankhurst’s wine and a truffle platter is most welcome. Allan pours while Christine gets the truffle platter ready. The winery has been part of the truffle festival for years marrying up their reds with a plate of Canberra truffle inspired morsels.
They first planted in 1986 and had their first vintage in 1989. Pankhurst Winery are particularly known for their Pinot Noir and Cabernet and they have 12 acres on their 200 acre property under vine with the grapes growing on decomposed granite soil.
Their cellar door is open on weekends and public holidays and during the truffle festival they offer a platter for $40 for two people that includes tastings of their best wines (some even dating back as 1995) as well as a few current releases. They explain that Pinots go particularly well with truffle and we snack on the camembert which has a centre of truffle as well as truffle bread, truffle butter, duck rillette as well as their house grape chutney.
They bring over a 2009 Pinot noir followed by the 1995 one and 2013 to show us the differences that each wine has with ageing and differences between each year. The 2013 is a firm favourite with me, especially with the creamy camembert. Next they bring over the 2010 Sangiovese and Cabernet Merlot 2012 which are also very good. And their signature wine is the Dorothy May Cabernet Sauvignon 2013.
Christine explains that if it is good enough they’ll slap Dorothy May’s name on it. She was the matriarch of the Pankhurst family. They’re descendants of the famous U.K. suffragette family with the most well known members being Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The winery don’t have Shiraz (somewhat of an anomaly in Canberra wine region) but with such other great reds, it’s a moot point. We snack, sip and watch the fairy wrens visit a neighbouring table.
Our home for our weekend is the Novotel Canberra, perfectly positioned in Canberra’s CBD among plenty of restaurants and cafes. We’re welcomed into our executive apartment, a spacious two room space space with a breakfast table and sink leading into the bathroom with a bath shower combo. There are tea and coffee making facilities and a king sized bed.
The hotel is one the Truffle Festival’s accommodation sponsors and has an in room yoga channel, indoor heated swimming pool, sauna and gym. It’s more a corporate style of hotel but is also popular with families but the staff are friendly and the bed is quite comfortable. I also recommend getting the executive apartment if there are two of you as the extra space is welcome and the large windows let in a lot of natural sunlight. Also the location is very central although you do need to drive to a lot of places.
There are a few issues with systems though-the car park system is confusing and could be simplified while the queue for breakfast involves a 10 minute wait to get a table, not ideal if you are in a hurry. Nevertheless staff are friendly although you wonder if they aren't as frustrated with the convoluted systems too.
For BentSpoke’s brewer Richard Watkins, the idea of using truffle in a beer is more as an integration tool rather than for its pure earthy flavour. Each Monday they add 200grams or 7 ozs. of fresh Canberra truffle to the Hopinator that he built and on Fridays they top it up with 100g/3.5ozs. of fresh local Canberra truffle. "The Hopinator is basically an infuser which allows beer to be infused with interesting ingredients. The beer flows from the tank up through the Hopinator infusing the (beer) straight to the tap,” Richard explains.
The glutamates in truffle bring the other flavours together in the hopinator. This year he has used flavours like chocolate coated coffee beans and tangelo. Last year he did a truffle combination much like Christmas in July and they have fun doing seasonal combinations of beer. Also on offer is a fantastic apple and ginger mulled cider to take the edge off any chilly weather (although we have lucked out and it is unseasonably warm the weekend we visited).
For dinner we head to the Peppers Hotel where Bicicletta, the hotel's Italian restaurant is featuring a truffle menu for the Winter months. A lot of families with kids dine from 5-6;30pm and then other groups and couples take over. The restaurant is very full this Saturday evening and there are four truffle dishes on offer.
We start with the burrata, a milky, mild cow's milk cheese with an enticing centre of cream that spills out from the mozzarella outer when cut. It is paired with crispy prosciutto, fresh tomatoes (not grilled as specified), sweet and succulent pan fried fresh figs and tiny little shavings of local truffle. It’s a lovely combination although the truffle is a bit sparse but it comes together beautifully when you get a piece of truffle.
Slow cooked Arborio rice with braised leek, smoked chicken breast,porcini mushroom, grana Padano and fresh local truffle $31
The risotto comes out next and this is a very sizeable portion of rice piled high. It is flavoured with braised leek and cubes of tender, smoked chicken breast, porcini mushroom, shavings of grand padding and shaved local truffle. The truffle aroma is much stronger although the taste is limited to the bites with the truffle mostly on top. The rice is well cooked and the smoked chicken is an interesting addition.
The truffle in this steak is very light and is more in the glaze. For $7 you can order extra truffles to go on your dishes and I recommend doing this if you order the steak because try as we might, we just couldn’t taste the truffle. And all you need to do is add a slice to every bite or two and that adds so much. I also have to season the steak as well. I think a simple bianci pizza with truffle and cheese would be an even better idea than to add it to steak.
Blue Frog Truffle Hunt
One of the highlights of any truffle festival and the way to get closer to these “black diamonds” is to do a truffle hunt. In 2003 Blue Frog Truffles planted 900 trees and then 900 more in 2007 on their 12 acre property. The trees are a mix of hazelnut trees, English Oak and Holm Oak. The truffle industry in Australia is a relatively small but growing one-last year they harvested 9 tonnes of truffles and 8 tonnes of them were from Western Australia, mainly from the Manjimup region. The truffles in Canberra fetch $2 a gram or $2,000 a kilo.
Truffle dogs Leroy and Ruby are on hand to help find the truffles. Their owners Lee and Colin from Southern Tablelands Truffle Dogs have trained their two dogs to search for ripe truffles and sit down on the spot where it is located. The dog is then rewarded with a liver treat for their find. Only Leroy is working with our group today, a large group of around 40 visitors.
Generally speaking, the best truffle dogs are said to be females (for their heightened sense of fragrance) and mixed breeds. Ruby is a short hair border collie kelpie cross and is said to have a finer sense of smell than Leroy, a border collie. However Leroy is a more mature dog and able to work around crowds. They explain that you can train a dog within 2 hours to pick up the truffle scent, but it can take up to 3 years to train it to behave and indicate that the scent is there and become a truffle dog. Much of it depends on the personality, drive and energy of the dog. The key is to find the dog’s motivation. For Leroy it is food based and for Ruby it’s chasing balls and carb foods!
Many truffières also prefer to use dogs because pigs love to eat the truffles whereas dogs can be trained to not eat them in lieu of a treat. Also with poaching a consideration, putting a dog in the back of a truck arouses little suspicion. But loading a pig gives away the possible treasures buried within the soil.
We aren’t waiting long until they let Leroy off the leash and he bounds up and down the rows of trees. Colin deliberately lets Leroy off upwind of the tree as dogs have slits on the side of their nose to help them smell. Leroy sits on a brûlée, a circle of “burnt” ground around the base of a tree which is where the truffles lie. Without the dogs, they simply wouldn’t be able to tell where the truffles lie. Humans have 6 million scent receptors but dogs have 300 million. Also the part of the brain that analyses scents is also 40 times the size of that of the human.
Leroy's paw is over the area where he smells the truffle. It’s then up to the humans to dig them up. Some people use hands to dig up the dirt, sometimes spoons if the truffles are far down in the ground. And despite the fact that we are digging around and disturbing the roots, this doesn’t necessarily create an adverse reaction in the tree-Lee explains that it often encourages growth of the fine roots and more truffles. The truffle unearthed is remarkably large in my hand and the scent is of a medium strength, not as strong as others.
The truffles that we are digging up grew in Summer and Autumn and since then they’ve spent the rest of the time maturing in the ground. The look of a fully ripe truffle is indicated by not only the smell but the colour. The darker the black in a black truffle, the better. They truffle season lasts for just a couple of months and during this time they go out twice a week for 3-4 hours each time.
Another truffle is smaller but is so intensely fragranced that you can smell it as they are digging it up. It’s a beauty and will fetch a good price. The biggest one they unearthed here was just under half a kilo but size is not necessarily the best thing. Chefs don’t want them that size as they’re not ideal to shave on top of food and they are a little too big to handle. After 1.5 hours on the farm we make our way back to the main house. They’ve got two soups waiting for us as well as truffle butter bread, truffle brie and truffle infused macadamias. The bread and butter are delicious and the soups warming but I don’t get a lot of truffle with the macadamias. We sip on our soups which they wash the dirt off with a scrubber. They are quite firm, totally unlike a mushroom.
There are four grades of truffle: extra grade, first, second and third grade. They slice a little nick out of the truffle to show a cross section. Some truffles have a bit of white rot inside - alas the large truffle that we found first does. This is caused by the dry conditions followed by heavy rains that cause the truffle to take on too much water. Others have had bites taken out of them by pests.
Everyone crowds around to buy truffles afterwards. There are many different sizes and one goes for $170 while others buy smaller portions for $15. The truffles are very different to each other in aroma and you really need to smell each one to see which truffles appeals to you the most. I found I liked the aroma of the freshly harvested truffles over the ones picked on Wednesday.
We end up buying one rounded truffle that weighs 48grams. It is $90 and they wrap it in a paper towel and place it in a zip lock bag. We are then onto the next part of the "Hunt and Cook" experience: a cooking class where we will learn how to cook the truffles at Foodish cooking school at Belconnen Fresh Markets. It’s located near the mushroom playground and Alaine Chanter has had the business located here for a year.
We are making three items today: a truffle and cheese souffle, a home made pappardelle with truffle cream sauce and a chocolate and chestnut roulade with chocolate soil and truffle ice cream. The chocolate soil and ice cream are already made. With our table of six we split up in pairs to tackle each item individually. I am making the chocolate chestnut roulade with another lady while Mr NQN and her husband tackle home made pappardelle.
The class starts with Alaine explaining all about truffle cooking. The main point to truffle cooking is how to extend and make the most of your precious truffle. Truffles are best served with fats to bring out their flavour. Truffle oil can also be made by immersing truffles into oil-commercial truffle oil actually contains no truffle because truffle oil made using real truffles only lasts for 10 days before issues like botulism become a concern. You can also infuse truffle in cream or milk and you can also put it in salt. Truffles like natural temperatures, if you heat truffles too high they will lose their delicate flavour which is why it is usually shaved on a dish just before presenting it.
There’s a bit more sharing than necessary because there three people turned up on the wrong day and sometimes Alaine and her staff give different instructions that can make things confusing but if you’ve ever had MasterChef fantasies and want to do a hands on class this is it. There is a time crunch and the class is really a hands on class with you going in and cooking things yourself by following the recipe.
They do a fantastic job with the pappardelle rolling it until it is paper thin. Our roulade turns out really well - it’s actually a gluten free roulade and a recipe that I will definitely use again as it is really three ingredients: chocolate, eggs and sugar and produces a fantastic roulade. There is a chocolate ganache mixed with chestnut cream for the filling and we also do a spun sugar decoration on top.
The other couple make up a souffle and by 3:30pm we are all sitting down. Alaine and her staff finish off the souffles and cook the pappardelle for us and we sit down to some Twisted River Wines, a local winery that has 15 acres of estate grapes. They hand pick all of their grapes and a French winemaker couple turns this into their wine. They are known for their Shiraz but we are tasting a Shiraz Viognier and a Shiraz with our food.
The souffle is feather light and cheesy-truth be told there isn’t a lot of truffle flavour in the souffle, it’s more about the truffle shaved on top that gives it flavour. I have found that even with infusing eggs with truffle, that doesn’t give a significant enough truffle aroma but the souffle is lovely and light in texture - and it's an enormous serve.
The parpardelle is very good and comes with a side of Dutch carrots, broccolini and watercress. It’s good and not just because Mr NQN helped to make it ;) But I would have liked a bit more sauce.
And I may be biased but I adored the roulade. It was rich certainly but divine and the truffle ice cream is heavenly and strong in truffle. This is because they use 10grams of actual truffle in this instead of relying on an infusion and this makes the world of difference.
And to finish, truffle brie and blue cheese!
Our last meal is at one of my favourite places to eat in Canberra at the East Hotel. Joe's Bar has a great atmosphere and food and despite the name actually the food is a big focus with a large menu of seasonal Italian food led by chef Francesco Balestrieri. On the 30th of July he will be holding a truffle dinner but for the rest of the truffle season there are truffle dishes on the menu.
One of the most fetching dishes is this simple but magical combination of fresh burrata cheese with an outer of mozzarella filled with cream. It is paired with golden smoked tomatoes and fresh truffle shaved on top, olive oil and pieces of grilled bread.
It comes out under a dome and the glass dome is lifted to reveal the contents underneath. This is a heavenly dish with the best of winter and summer together and with a generous amount of truffle.
The second truffle dish is the silky pappardelle pasta, wide ribbons of pasta with mushrooms with Swiss brown mushrooms, finely minced pork neck and fresh truffles. The pork isn’t strong enough to overwhelm the truffles and this has a good amount of cheese to season the pasta as well as a generous serve of truffles. And the prices are very good too, it’s a steal for a pasta truffle dish!
Diners can also have fresh truffles added to any dishes that they want and an ingredient that goes well with truffles is pumpkin. The sweetness of the pumpkin brings out the glutamates in the truffles. There is a layer of plump pumpkin ravioli on a bed of crumbled cheese for seasoning and a cream sauce. It is topped with a pretty sprinkling of edible flowers and fresh Canberra truffle.
We toy with the idea of ordering a shaving of truffles on top of our dessert but refrain from doing so ( ;)). The mini cannoli are crunchy and are filled with a silky smooth ricotta orange filling as well as a layer of chocolate inside. Francesco brings out some grappa, one softer grappa and one stronger one for the cold Canberra night. And that only makes us even more reluctant to leave.
When I come back to the hotel with the truffle in my bag I suddenly discover that I have a truffle infused handbag. I pop it in the fridge and leave an alarm to take it out before we leave. For a moment I almost consider putting this precious black diamond in the safe! ;)
So tell me Dear Reader, are you a truffle fan? Have you or would you buy one? Have you got any cooking suggestions for truffles?
NQN and Mr NQN attended the Truffle Festival as their guest but all opinions remain her own.
Canberra Truffle Festival
For the festival program, see the truffle festival website: https://www.trufflefestival.com.au/