It is intriguing to me how limiting our thinking and creativity can be because of preconceived ideas. Perhaps this is not the case for you. Alas, it has been so for me. Until this week, my perception of truffle hunting had primarily been limited – by watching television, garnished with paragraphs from literature. Vaguely, there was some awareness of pigs vs dogs. And although I remember the first fresh truffle was introduced into Australia in the early ’90s, and the beginning of our own cultivated yields in Australia, and the first Australian truffle was dug by Duncan Garvey later in the same decade, I held some kind of understanding that truffles were European, with the better ones found under oak trees in France and Italy.
But for me truffle eating was a different matter. My palate knew more than my intellect. I had passionately devoured freshly shaven truffles – and truffles in all sorts of variations – across three continents – from the magnificence of Perigord truffles at Chef Alain Passard’s L’Arpege seasonal truffle degustation to beautiful beautiful dinners in Australia with Chefs such as Justin North (Becasse), Stefano Manfredi (Pretty Beach House), Tim Pak Poy (then of Claudes – now at The Wharf restaurant), Neil Perry & Phil Wood (Rockpool) through to the Australian truffles recently enjoyed at Les Amis restaurant in Singapore.
So, when Duncan Garvey invited me to go truffle hunting in the Southern Highlands of NSW, the answer was an unconditional and resounding yes. Adding to the excitement of the morning, was that I was travelling down to the farm with the amazing Chef Justin North. Chef was bringing back Perigord black truffles, that he’d dug himself, for that night’s cookery class at Quarter Twenty One and a degustation on the following evening at his premier restaurant Becasse.
I wasn’t prepared for what the day had to offer. Firstly, as Duncan Garvey and Chef Justin North both know, I’ve crossed off one of those things I have to do – off my list, THE list! And that’s now done! But the day offered so much more. Although I’ve always loved and appreciated the truffle I hadn’t thought this through. Those television shows never talked about the aroma, the smell of the earth, which was the most incredible sigh-gasm stuff from which heavenly dreams are made. The smell is such a gorgeous mixture of truffled earth – quite intense and sweet and divinely aromatic. The smell is more than just an entertaining fantasy, as it helps judge the maturity of the truffle before it is even unearthed.
It’s not just the earth that is permeated with the truffle aroma. The very air is filled with it. As I stood downhill and down-wind as the largest haul of the day began to emerge the sweet nutty air summoned us to the occasion.
These Southern Highlands truffles are on private land. Unlike the public land of Europe, the fenced area means that the truffle is not required to be removed when a truffle hunter finds it. Someone else won’t come along and take it. It is safe until ready at its peak. So, some truffles are replaced, and the earth rebuilt on top as protection. Spoilage on this estate is low, and most truffles are removed only in the very prime of their condition.
Duncan Garvey partners 50/50 with the farmers, supplying his truffle expertise in the right soil, and the right climate to propogate the land. He’s already turned over some of the European myths. There is no burn around the trees, and the trees are hazelnut (not oak). The results are speaking for themselves.
Alas I was the only one who didn’t carry my day into evening and the truffle cookery class with Duncan Garvey and Chef Justin North at Quarter Twenty One. There was more produce calling me elsewhere – in Queensland. Though it’s times like that I wish I could have been in two places at one time.
Before I said my farewells, and left the farm and the group, there was time though for a nourishing and delicious home made soup – with lashings of fresh truffles of course.