Canberra Truffle Festival: Are truffles really as good as people say?
7 July 2014
FRESH from the earth and priced so high the bill will make your eyes water. Truffles are said to be one of the best foods around but are they worth the hype?
WHAT is it about truffles? Why are they perceived to be God’s gift to foodies? Are they really that good?
I’m here on a sunny Canberra morning to hunt truffles with Sherry and her dog Snuffles at French Black Truffles of Canberra — one of many truffle-themed events held in Canberra throughout The Truffle Festival — to see what the fuss is all about.
Truth is, I’m a big truffle fan. The strong smelling and taste fungus that is often used in cooking rich dishes such as pastas and potato can be polarising though.
People either really like them, don’t like them at all, or still have a lot to learn. I like them … a lot, but want to learn more — and figure participating in a truffle hunt and eating as many truffles as I can is a good way to go.
Sherry McArdle-English wasn’t always in the truffle business. “My husband and I are not farmers. That’s not at all our background,” she tells us in her shed in preparation for the hunt.
In 1988 at the age of 55 Sherry’s husband, Gavin (who was running his own civil engineering company at the time), was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Three days after the diagnose Gavin woke up and declared that he wanted to buy a farm. “We’d always lived in the city; we had no experience with farming. I didn’t think it was a real good idea,” laughs Sherry.
Three weeks later Gavin was still talking about the farm, so they bought a sheep farm located about 10 minutes drive from Canberra’s city centre. Since neither Sherry or Gavin had ever lived on a farm they hired someone to look after the sheep and continued with their corporate life — Gavin as a civil engineer and Sherry as a psychologist in the disability sector — travelling into the city for work and relaxing at the expansive property in the evenings and on weekends.
In 2004 Gavin became ill and they had to sell the business, and after three months of Gavin asking what was for lunch Sherry decided they needed a hobby. “I started cooking classes and came across the word truffle. And that was the start of the truffle journey.”
To learn about truffles Sherry and Gavin took an early morning flight to Tasmania (where truffles began in Australia in 1994) and spent the day truffle hunting, eating and learning as much as they could about truffles. “When we got back on the plane that night my husband had two questions for me: ‘How much did you say these things are?’ And when I said $2000 a kilogram, he said, ‘Which paddock would you like to use?’”
Looking outside at her trees today (she has 2500 tress all up making her farm the only fully-fledged commercial truffle farm in the ACT) it’s clear that she’s not the only one who loves truffles — seems Canberra is into them too. When I question to her about how she knew that they’d be good she laughs. “I had no idea about truffles. I was just desperately looking for something that my husband and I could engage in together and have a lifestyle that could accommodate his needs.”
To support the local community Sherry only sells locally — to Canberrans — and sells out each and every year — as do the other eight farms in the region (French Black Truffles of Canberra is the only farm in Canberra).
Simply listening to Sherry I learn that the attraction of truffles can be attributed to a number of things.
Firstly the season is short. Truffles can only be dug out during the winter once they have matured. June sees the early-season truffles mature, while towards the end of July the late-season truffles (which can be up to 30 centimetres below the surface) are ready.
Secondly truffles can only be grown in certain regions. New Zealand was the first country in the southern hemisphere to farm truffles, while in Australia Tasmania was the first state. It’s now said that perhaps Canberra’s truffles are some of the best. To flourish truffles need 35 degrees in summer (that’s when they initiate and then it’s a six-months growing process). As the frost hits with freezing and below freezing temperatures the truffles start to mature. “Every year the farmers are hanging out for that frost,” Sherry explains.
On average truffles take six to seven years to make an appearance from the date the trees are planted. Sherry lucked out only having to wait for two-and-a-half years because of her extensive research and ideal climate and soil surrounds. So you need to wait a while. Reason number three.
We head outside with Sherry and her truffle smelling-trained American Cocker Spaniel Snuffles (who Sherry trained herself) to search for them. It’s a bit of a laugh watching the two run around in the wind, but eventually they pause by a tree. Snuffles does some more sniffing and then Sherry joins in the sniffing too. Truffle found. After some digging and manoeuvring the soil a truffle is out — one truffle.
Point four is they are not easy to find — or dig out — of the ground.
There are many other aspects that highlight just how special and delicate the truffle is. After the truffle is dug out, luckily still intact, it’s carefully washed, weighed and placed in the fridge for a whole 12 days maximum. Truffles only have a shelf life of 12 days so need to be used or sold quite quickly.
Within these few hours I learn just how difficult truffles are to not only grow, but also find, dig out and keep. And that’s all before we come to the taste.
Which brings me back to there are three types of truffle people — those how love them, those who don’t and those who don’t know much about them.
The Truffle Festival in Canberra is designed for all three types. Those who love truffles will have plenty to do, those who don’t like them may find themselves pleasantly surprised, and those who don’t know much about truffles have a fun classroom to learn in. There’s everything from truffle hunts and truffle cooking classes, to talks, walks and more food … all truffle infused. And this year well-loved international celebrity chef Antonio Carluccio is the festival patron, travelling to the Canberra region in July to be part of many festival activities.
5 must-do truffle experiences at the festival
1) Learn about truffles by hunting for them yourself at French Black Truffles of Canberra with Sherry and her team. Truffle hunts are held twice daily on Saturdays throughout the festival.
3) For serious truffle lovers The Truffle Festival Gala Dinner at GRAZING restaurant is the place to go. Antonio Carluccio will be there so you may get a chance to chat to the man himself. If not, the truffle-dishes on offer will be spectacular.