When most people think of truffle hunting they usually think of big excited pigs sniffing around in the forest. Or maybe of Saint Antony, the patron saint of truffles, with his pig sustaining him in the forest by foraging for this prized fungus, also known by it’s scientific name of tuber melanosporum.
Apparently, many a European hunter have lost their fingers over the years, trying to stop greedy hunting pigs hoeing down on their harvest. The truffles apparently smell exactly like the male sex hormone and drive them wild. Poor things. I hope the hunters gave them some truffle to satisfy their sexual and actual hunger too. Can you imagine having a tasty man in front of you that you couldn’t eat? I’m sure you have!
Sorry, things have taken a turn for the worse… let’s get out of the gutter and back to the farm for truffle hunt, shall we?
These days dogs are used to hunt for truffles. They are easier to train, more obedient, and much lighter to pull away from a truffle than a 150kg pig!
A few weekends ago I visited Blue Frog Farm in Sutton (which is about an hours bus ride out of the centre of Canberra) to check out their truffle crop.
This farm is the first in Canberra to start growing truffles. They planted hazelnut and two types of oak trees (English and Evergreen/Holly) that had been injected with truffle spores and then waited 6-7 years for truffles to appear. This is the normal growth time – truffles are not an overnight success by any stretch of the imagination!
During the 6-7 waiting years they made sure to erect strong fences to keep the kangaroos and wallabies away from their 1,500 trees, as they would apparently wander in and kick the trees down. Just for fun. How annoying.
The dogs are let loose and it doesn’t take them long to sniff out a truffle under this evergreen/holly oak tree. Jason, the truffle hunter, pops down his bag filled with interesting little digging gadgets and plastic bags (for storing the fresh truffles) and gets down onto his hands and knees.
He immediately sniffs* the dirt to check the dog has correctly identified a ripe truffle. Since the smell of truffle is so strong and powerful, the dogs may pick up a truffle that is almost ripe, rather than perfectly ripe. Therefore, the human hunter must confirm this before digging it up. Truffles don’t ripen after picking (much like mushrooms, of which they are cousins), so if you take it out of the ground too early then it is unusable.
However, a truffle that is unripe now, could be ripe in one hour if the sun shines strongly enough on the soil. That’s why during the short truffle season of 6 weeks from late June to early August the dogs are out on farms sniffing around twice a day. Truffles need really hot summers and really cold winters to properly develop, so Canberra’s climate is perfect for them (as is parts of WA, VIC, SA and NSW, but not QLD or NT).
Harvesting is always in Winter, which means it is freezing when you go on the hunt – rug up in your warmest woolies and gum boots too!
*Wondering what a truffle smells like? See here for some funny descriptions (scroll down to the text under the second photo).
Jason confirms that the dog is correct and starts digging. Truffles can be right under the suface or as deep as 10 inches underground so Jason carefully starts digging.
To make sure he is digging in the right direction he bends down and puts his nose right onto the dirt. See picture above.
Finally he feels the top of the truffle so he begins to dig around it and gently pull it out. Success! It’s a big one about the size of a tennis ball.
We take it back to the house and wash it while the dogs find even more truffles. Our hosts slice some into hot pumpkin soup and we drink it down gratefully. It’s delicious and oh-so-warming. I bought a 62g truffle for $120 and carefully carried it all the way back to Sydney like a fragile baby :)
You can book truffle hunt and accommodation packages through Crowne Plaza Canberra. If you are looking for a cooking course during the truffle festival then check out my review of Le Tres Bon restaurant’s one, it was excellent! Or jump onto the official Truffle Festival website for more info. Hurry, the festival is only on until July 31st.
Fig & Cherry participated in the hunt with compliments of Blue Frog Farm and Starr Public Relations (thanks Charlie!).