“C’mon Frisbee, find truffle,” the voice of 52-year-old Damian Robinson chimes, as a frisky Jack Russell Terrier runs across a neatly pruned plantation of holly oak and hazelnut trees, on the southern side of Lake George basin, near Bungendore in New South Wales, Australia.
Two hours to dusk, we pull on our warmers, as the six-degrees Celsius temperature numbs our fingers. The soil gravel below our feet is friable. The excellent rosé wine we sipped on hours earlier at Lerida Estate, north of the lake, having paired it with Pinot Noir and Australian scones slathered with cream and berry compote, hasn’t shielded us from the cold.
Yet, we feel rather French, following Frisbee, who is busy sniffing and pawing the soil for ripened Black Périgord Truffle that gets its name from Périgord region in France.
We are at one of the three farms of Turalla Truffles, started in 2005 by Robinson, who moonlights as a beat composer, and helps wife Lindsay Devy run her family cattle farm.
Dogs, Robinson explains, can smell 25,000 times more than the human nose. “If you are in a room smelling of truffle, your nose, after a point, will lose the smell. A dog will hold on to the scent, making them excellent hunt dogs,” he says, digging his fingers into the soil and pulling out a shrivelled truffle. “For Frisbee, marking a ripe truffle on the ground means getting a treat. We start at 10 am and go on till 3 pm.” Robinson gets on all four and digs his fingers into a spot Frisbee has marked.
Truffles need a hot summer and cold winter. In case of poor rain, which has been the case in south-east Australia for the past two years, irrigation is a must. The harvest begins mid-June and goes on till mid-August. Truffles grow on roots of trees that have been inoculated with fungus Tuber melanosporum. “We bring our saplings from Europe. The French black truffle is the fruiting body of the fungus, which forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots of oak and hazel trees. The edible portion, or truffle, is harvested in winter, once it has matured,” says Robinson, holding up a mound of soil. It smells of beetroot.
We see a truffle sticking out of the ground, but it doesn’t look ripe. Robinson covers it up with some soil to save it from frost. “So far, no one has worked out a way to farm the wild Italian white truffle or trifola d’Alba Madonna. We are imitating the south of France. Australia is an arid country and the soil is too acidic for truffles and needs to be treated with limestone to maintain a neutral pH,” he says.
Over the years, the French yield has dropped consistently, though it still reigns as the highest market producer. Australia, which began growing truffles in the year 2000, is a close second.
Buyers (mostly restaurants) are usually interested in well-rounded small-sized truffles. “It is funny for me, because I judge a truffle purely by its smell. The Italian, Chinese and Japanese buyers are all big on shape,” he laughs, adding that he touched a harvest of 100 kg last year, selling at A$2 a gram.
Standing in their warm yellow kitchen, as Robinson serves us a brie cheese stuffed with shaved truffles, Devy gives us tips on truffle care: “After scrubbing the truffles clean, I like to put them in a jar of cream for two-three days, without cutting them up. It flavours your cream, which goes beautifully with eggs and gnocchi. Truffles last up to two weeks, and if they get powdery, we clean it with alcohol. You know it is going bad once it starts getting spongy.” Robinson is rolling dumplings stuffed with oyster mushrooms, leek and truffle to be cooked in a cream sauce with madeira and more truffles.
To Robinson, the “smell of truffle is best described as a cross between sex and old football socks, but food experts will tell you molasses and beetroot,” he laughs. But as we express our desire to carry back some home-made truffle oil, he frowns. “When we walk into a restaurant that smells of truffle, we run out of the door. Truffle oil is made in the laboratory, it is an essence. There is nothing truffle about it, mind you.”