Insight into the exotic wonderment that is Truffle Hunting
When we embarked from Sydney to go on our truffle hunt there was more than a little excitement in the air. None of our group had ever been on a truffle farm, or as the French say, 'La Truffiere', before. None of us had ever really seen or touched a real truffle before. Truffles are talked about so much, and written about like a fever, yet so much mystery still shrouds these underground fungi they're almost mythical. I mean, what do they ACTUALLY taste like? And what makes them so difficult to grow and, therefore, so rare and expensive?
Well, our inquisitive minds had only a short drive to wait before the mystery of truffles was divulged, for the most part anyways.
Our hosts for the day were Barbara and Ted from Yelverton Truffiere, a lovely couple with a spring in their step and plenty of wisdom up their sleeves. When we arrived at the farm we were greeted with a warm hug form Barbara, a tail-wag from their trusty Truffle-sniffer, Jet, and light refreshments around a crackling fire. Then the truffle enlightenment began.
Seated in a large tin shed, Ted explained how Yelverton became a Truffiere, and why their little property seemed to be producing unordinarily large truffles, up to 380grams in weight. They're just lucky... No, just kidding. The process actually consisted of a huge amount of research and an even bigger investment. Firstly, they had to decide on a suitable plot of land, somewhere flat with adequate drainage, which could fit around 300 oak trees. Next, the soil needed to be tested. Truffles, Ted explained, cannot be grown in acidic soil, which is widely common in Australia.
Yelverton may have had the most beautiful, nutrient-rich, volcanic soil in the area but the high acidity would prevent any truffle from growing. Hence, tonnes of lime was dumped over the plot of land. The large, tin shed was silent as images of white, powdery acid amassing over their land were being shown on an old TV in front of us. Finally, when the soil was retested at the right pH of 8, Oak trees already inoculated with the Perigord truffle spores, could be planted.
As Ted went on, all of us began to understand more and more about the mysterious truffle, yet even Ted admitted he didn't completely understand their underground ways, and that there are a lot of 'experts' out there that still don't understand them. At Yeleverton, their first season of truffles came just six years after planting, yet other farms can wait up to ten years, and some farms don't produce at all. In fact, with figures showing that just 10% of truffle farms are producing, maybe Ted and Barbara do have a little luck on their side. They certainly are producing some of the biggest truffles around, which was evidenced as they passed around a container of huge truffle specimens from their hunt the previous day. We ogled the fist sized truffles and took big whiffs of the giddying aroma. So earthy and moist, perhaps a little nutty with a touch of smoke. It's an aroma that is difficult to pinpoint, neither bitter nor sweet nor salty nor sour, it is often referred to as 'umami'.
Freshly picked Truffles from Yelverton Truffiere
We couldn't wait to get out onto the field to try our luck at finding some truffles in the earth. As we walked down to the Truffiere plot, the sun shone down, the breeze whipped our hair across our faces, our game faces were on. Now I'd like to say that we hunted like skilled farmers, poring over the dirt, examining traces of soil for evidence of truffles, but really it was Yelverton's trusty Blue Heeler, Jet, that did the actual ground-breaking work. Once again our eyes were opened to the world of Truffle farming.
Because truffles grow on the roots of Oak trees and form underneath the surface of the ground they are often undetectable to us. Hence, for years, farmers in Italy relied on pigs to sniff out their truffles. Yet pigs have a soft spot for truffles and tend to snuff them down before their owners can reel them in, which is why most truffle farms in Australia use dogs. Dogs don't seem to like truffle but they have fantastic noses, which makes them a perfect choice. However, they do need proper training to sniff out the truffle, and this becomes the most crucial process of La Truffiere.
Jet - the Truffle sniffer-dog in action
So the group watched as Ted demonstrated the training process by throwing small bits of truffle under a tree, instructing Jet to 'find the truffle', then rewarding him with small treats when he sniffed it out. After a number of successful demonstrations we continued walking along the lines of oak trees, looking at the rings of dirt around the trunks to see if we could spot any truffles ourselves. We got excited when Jet ran around a spot a number of times, lightly pawing the dirt, thinking a large truffle was about to be extracted before our eyes.
Jet being rewarded for sniffing out the Truffle
Then Ted excitedly claimed they had found a truffle in there... the previous day, but it was excellent that Jet could still pick the spot from the lasting aroma. And there were a few spots that Ted pointed out to us, which had truffles in them that had become over-ripe before they had been found. These truffles are no good so they are left in the ground to decompose and produce spores that may grown again next season. Eventually it was time to go up to the house to enjoy our truffled lunch, and while we hadn't found any truffles this time, it was such a joy to watch Ted interact with Jet and to gain such a great insight into this wonderful, mysterious world of truffle hunting, it hardly mattered in the least.
Our group of ten trampled into the dining room and found a long, wooden table set beautifully with shining silver and sparkling glasses. Our four course truffle lunch followed, which can only be described as a homely, wholesome feast that highlighted the humble truffle in myriad ways. We enjoyed a rugged potato soup, egg-rich truffled pasta, a leafy salad, truffled ice-cream, and a freshly made truffled camembert. The dish of the day by far was the truffled ice-cream. It was deliciously creamy and the truffle added a savoury essence to it, which paired surprisingly well with the sweetness. Bright, zingy raspberries cut well through the creaminess of the ice-cream, and the wafers gave it a delicious crunchy texture.
Truffle Ice-Cream Sundae
Overall, it was a delightful meal that really showcased how versatile the truffle can be, and we especially loved how Barbara would shave more fresh truffle over our dishes before we ate them so we could really understand its taste and texture.
We absolutely loved the Truffle Hunt at Yelverton and would recommend it to any avid foodie out there or anyone wanting to know more about those oddly shaped, elusive, brown fungi. Our hosts were amazingly generous, knowledgeable, and hospitable - and I'm sure they wouldn't have it any other way.