Hunting for Black Gold | The Truffle Farm, Canberra

A labrador that can dig up $10,000 worth of veritable black gold in less than an hour? I’m finally beginning to understand that whole ‘man’s best friend’ moniker. Yes, it’s truffle season, when one of life’s great delicacies – equal parts marvel and peculiarity – grace our lives for a short three months, single-handedly justifying the existence of winter. Their rugged, jet-black reptilian skin, perfuming any room with ambrosial aromas when cracked open make a strong case for the existence of God* him(her?them?)self, for how else were we so lucky to be blessed with the capability to relish these earthy delights?

The farm entrance hosts a cafe selling comfort truffle fare (think burgers, fried chicken, pasta – all enriched with truffle) for any visitor. It’s specifically designed for people who haven’t booked a tour – if you have, I would recommend resisting the temptation to pre-feed!

Visiting Mount Majura’s The Truffle Farm won’t be able to answer such existential questions, but when it comes to the fungi themselves, it’s one of the most enlightening experiences this side of the hemisphere. The farm offers truffle ‘hunts’, along with a lunch or brunch that showcases its beauty as an ingredient and lifts the veil on an often inscrutable ingredient. Only a handful of truffle farms in Australia offer this, and none do it as consistently as The Truffle Farm. A must for any truffle lover.

Mt Majura’s a fifteen-minute drive from Canberra proper. For Sydneysiders, I’d advise against day-tripping it, since the experience runs close to 4 hours. Go on a Saturday and stay in Canberra overnight – this way, you can at least enjoy some of the non-optional wine that forms part of the $198 asking price. If that’s a bit of sticker shock, consider that degustations in Sydney can be that much just for food – never mind tipples or the outdoor activity. The Truffle Farm also offers a more reasonable $148 truffle hunt + brunch, though I have no idea what you get there. Less, presumably.

The dining hall

The gates to the property open on time, and we are led into the dining hall, which serves as the point of introduction from the farm’s owner: Jayson Mesman, an ex-dog trainer for the AFP, with an epic backstory of how he came to be the farm’s proprietor (I’m certainly not going to spoil this). Our chef-in-residence is Damian Brabender – bossman at OTIS Dining Hall, a local ‘casual fine diner’ in Canberra. After a rather lengthy – but first-rate exposition – we were led out into the farm proper.

Direct view of the kitchen. It’s not fancy: and that’s the point

Now, don’t get any ideas: this isn’t finders keepers. We’re talking $2500/kg shrooms (I’m sure they give a similar high to the other kind), not $15/kg apples. Hence the ‘hunt’. Jayson regaled us with tales of people trying to, um, ‘conceal the bulge in their pants’ – and it supposedly happens more often than you might think! Not to mention the one time when a guy climbed the fence with nothing but gloves and mini shovels…he was ‘on a hike and got lost’. Yeahhhh.

Off we go!

Besides, our lacklustre sense of smell and the fact that truffles grow beneath the ground – clustering around oak & hazelnut tree roots – means we can’t find them on our own. We need dogs (~10,000x better sense of smell than us), or pigs (~10 million times better than us!). While a pig knows how to smell (notwithstanding their own particular musk), they’re ‘uninsurable’, as they’re known to chew through anything between them and truffles – and that includes relieving you of your fingers! Dogs, on the other hand, are much more docile, and can be trained via positive reinforcement to find truffles – but not to eat them. This is why in Australia, dogs – not pigs – are used in the hunt. That said, Jayson keeps two pigs – Winnie & Piglet (don’t be misled by their names: these are BIG BOYS) – that play a vital role in re-fertilising the property after every season.

The Truffle Farm keeps several sniffer dogs, with a beautiful lab called Willow taken out for the day’s expedition. She was all the group needed, honing in on truffles from almost the moment we entered the grounds, and within half an hour, had already yielded over a kilo of the stuff, with oohs and aahs ensuing every time one was excavated from the loamy soil. Whenever Willow sniffed out a good truffle – one that’s mature, aesthetically pleasing and aromatic – she got a little well-earned snack. We, on the other hand, got to make a token contribution in digging out the truffles she finds. It’s really for the photo – it’s 100% Willow.

The Truffle Farm grows three types of trees altogether numbering 4000 (at time of writing): French Oak, which yields truffles with ‘peaty’ flavour notes; English Oak, producing earthy & woody examples; and hazelnut, which rather fittingly, creates truffles with chocolate-y notes. Like wine, there is no ‘best’: it’s all up to you.

After the hunt, which lasts the better part of an hour, we bid farewell to the cold, crisp Canberran air, and escape back to the dining hall. As lunch was being prepped, the knowledge bombs began to drop. See the next section for the lecture notes.

Damien Brabender on the pans

The food varies year to year – what you see on Instagram last year is unlikely to be the menu du jour. Damian Brabender’s not the type to sit on his hands after he’s got a good recipe. But then again, the recipient of Australian Chef of the Year 2017 at the AHA National Awards For Excellence, as well as 2018’s ACT Chef of the Year is unlikely to be that kind of person.

Local & South Australian wines

While Damian always changes it up to stay fresh, the way he uses truffles never strays from a simple philosophy. I actually just mentioned it: simplicity. For all their cost and mystique, truffles work best with anything that contains fat or moisture, and ideally both. Think eggs, cheese, potato mash – anything with butter and cream. In this vein, dishes like the cauliflower veloutรฉ and bucatini pasta (literally a three-ingredient dish, plus salt & pepper) were the stars of the show. The fact that they happen to be the dishes you could most easily make at home is no coincidence: truffles are excellent like that.

Some dishes were weaker: the mac & cheese croquette, for example – just wasn’t as truffly as I would have expected given my own results experimenting at home (err I mean, the bae’s home). It’s also pretty challenging to get truffle to properly work with seafood: sure, the truffle notes on the scallops were unmistakable, but lean proteins have trouble taking on its aromas without some adipose assistance.

We finish off with a truffle brie – which you can easily make yourself by stuffing shaved truffle in between layers of the creamy cheese, and then a very tantalising panna cotta made with truffle-infused cream. All in all, while I’d be lying if I said it was the perfect meal for $198, it was certainly illuminating to see the breadth of things one can do with truffle. A shame we didn’t get a truffle gin & tonic! (yes that’s a thing and isn’t a gimmick).

At $198, The Truffle Farm’s full package is not a bargain bin experience. This is perhaps a little ironic, given both Jayson and Damian’s passion is to democratise the truffle to the masses, to show that despite its hefty price tag, a little can go a long way. Well, to me, the price tag does go a long way: a full deg, matched wines, great storytelling and a first-hand education. Sure, the knowledge I learned is only a number of Google searches away, but I guess next time I want to take a holiday, I’ll just Google it and say I’ve been there – right?

I’ll definitely visit next year.

How to use truffles with efficiency and efficacy

Some of this I knew instinctively prior to visiting The Truffle Farm, but everything was confirmed thereafter.

Truffle oil: 99.9% bullsh*t, 0.01% more of the same

There is about as much truffle in truffle oil as there are babies in baby wipes’ Sorry Damian, – if you’re reading this, I had to use that one. Truffle oil’s aroma – literally designed to be a perfume – and taste are synthetically manufactured. It is extortionately expensive for what it is: the base ingredients are regular olive oil (maybe sometimes the extra virgin stuff), and 2,4-dithiapentane – the unpronounceable chemical that delivers the punchy aroma. It commands a price many times that of an equivalent bottle of pure olive oil but, because it is still far cheaper than actually using truffles, it results in restauranteurs & cafe owners – scrupulous or otherwise – to use it in place of real truffles.

You can see where this can go. It becomes the first ‘truffle’ experience for many a curious beginner’s palate. It’s no surprise then that these people – and the list once included this blogger – through no fault of their own, erroneously come to expect that the synthetic eau de truffle parfum from any dish labelled with ‘truffle’ is the real deal. But when the genuine article comes along, they’re disappointed, and won’t ever shell out for the stuff again. Damian and Jayson recounted stories where people would literally rock up and say ‘your truffles are defective, I made dish XYZ with it and it tastes nothing like it when I make it with ABC-brand truffle oil.’ Facepalm.

If you can already tell your tartufo from the snake ‘oil’ made from it, awesome. If not, buy a truffle, use it well, and you’ll be able to tell who’s who in no time.

Infuse, so you can reuse

If you still think truffles are expensive, consider this: saffron can fetch prices of over $10,000/kg. Vanilla bean? $2100/kg. ‘But nobody in their right mind would anywhere near that much!’ And you’d be right.

The Pareto Rule is instructive: 80% of the result is achieved with 20% of the effort, or in this case, cost. Getting maximum truffle bang for your buck doesn’t rely on the hedonistic theatre of a server shaving truffles onto your plate until your wallet goes home. As Simon from @simonfoodfavourites has said, truffles shaved tableside can ‘tasteless pencil shavings’. Sure, there’s some aromatic bang for your buck – especially for truffles shaved onto hot, fatty & saucy dishes – but the best truffle numbers don’t rely on such an expensive performance.

So how’s it done? It’s simply letting the truffle be buddies with whatever primary ingredients you intend to use the night before (or a few hours before, in a pinch). In the case of eggs, a truffle’s aroma will literally permeate through the eggshell, imbuing it with a truffle flavour that cannot, under any circumstance, be recreated at the point of cooking. Shaving truffles at the point of serving will provide a flavour boost too – albeit more for the nose – but is nowhere near as cost-effective as getting your truffles into bed with your dish constituents beforehand. Like most things in life, the best results are had with advance planning.

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$50 of truffle on $250 worth of beef. Extra? Definitely. Would I do it again? Maybe. Is it an effective use of truffle? Abso-freaking-lutely not.

The old me would shave literally $50+ worth of truffle onto a dish that otherwise would have cost $5, believing it would make $50 of difference. Those were the days. But now? How about making 1kg of truffle butter for that same money? Or infusing over fifty eggs – breakfast for days? In fact, for as long as you can keep your truffle fresh, you can use it unlimited times, shaving a small amount for an aroma boost at the end. To see another example, check out what my mate Robbie’s done with his 9 grams of truffle. ‘It’s how you use it…’

When only luxury will do – NOT

I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating: despite the truffle’s delicacy status and price tag, they are best enjoyed with ingredients that are the staples of any Western pantry. You can start and stop at eggs and high-fat dairy, and you could arguably never need to think of another truffle combination ever again.

In my experience, the more complicated a dish tries to be when heroing truffles, the more disappointing it seems to be. It isn’t because they’re bad, but that I would have been just as content eating something much simpler and cheaper: a roast chicken with truffles inserted between the skin, or having a slice of truffle brie on lavosh. It’s the simple stuff, really. Then again, feel free to experiment – it’s part of the fun!

Fresh is best, or you’ll regret the rest

Jayson & Damian will tell you that truffles can be stored up to a week in a jar, with rice (to absorb moisture) before they start degrading. In practice, if you’re able to keep the truffle sufficiently dry, up to three weeks of fridge storage is possible and the truffle will only lose some of its aromas by week three. If you still can’t finish it (in which case, just how much did you buy?), you can actually freeze them, which will keep them in stasis for over a year.

Whatever you do, the enemy of truffles is moisture: so keep dry at all times.

‘Fresh’ also applies to the cooking process itself. Notwithstanding ingredient pre-infusion, there’s a reason why chefs will only shave truffles tableside: truffles break down pretty quickly once they are exposed to too much heat, so try to avoid using them during the fry/bake/steam/whatever. Ironically, they do need heat for their aromas to be released, which is where the tableside shave comes in: it’s the goldilocks level of heat.

I hope you have as much fun with truffles as I do ๐Ÿ™‚

Find someone who looks at you the way I look at truffles

Date Last Visited: 2/June/2019
Address: 23 Mount Majura Rd, Majura ACT 2609
Price Guide (approx): $198 for truffle hunt + lunch w/matched wines

This post is based on an independently-paid visit to The Truffle Farm, Canberra

This post may contain affiliate links. Purchases made by clicking on an affiliate link may earn a small commission for me, but never at extra cost for you. Please go here for more information.

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