This weekend, we took a small road trip 50 miles south into New South Wales’ Snowy Monaro Region to experience a black truffle hunt. The greater Canberra region is known for its fresh black winter truffles. This year, the tenth annual Canberra Truffle Festival runs from June through August (the southern hemisphere equivalent of December-February). What better way to experience the festival and support local farmers than enjoying a black perigord truffle-infused brunch and tagging along with dogs trained to hunt the savory black gold?
As part of the festival, many restaurants and wineries host special truffle-focused degustation menus. However, back in May, I’d decided instead to book a brunch and tour at a farm called Macenmist Black Truffles and Wines so we could see a hunt firsthand. The hunts sell out fast, and booking early ended up being a great decision.
The drive to the farm took an hour, and we saw approximately 30-40 roadkill kangaroos, wombats, and foxes just on the way down. Two lane highways with grass and bush on either side with no fence to keep animals from bounding into the roadway can be really scary; for the first time, a kangaroo bounced alongside my car on the shoulder for three seconds and then veered behind me and nearly caused a wreck.
Luckily the truck behind me didn’t swerve, nor did the oncoming traffic, and the kangaroo got to the other side after skittering painfully across the asphalt.
The farm was down a few miles of dirt road outside of Bredbo proper, a town with a population around 200. Sheep, horses, cows, and roos dotted the dry, serene countryside. We happened to glimpse a kangaroo with a small joey peeking out of her pouch looking right at us a safe distance off the track; the expression and head shape of the joey was a smaller but otherwise identical copy of its mother.
We enjoyed our brunch, met some of the farm’s chickens and livestock, and the truffle dogs Fahren and Tawdiffu. Lagotto Romagnolos are apparently the original Italian truffle hunting dog back to about the fourteenth century, and there are only a couple thousand of them in the whole of Australia (compared to five million border collies, two of whom also live at Macenmist).
We also met the owners, Barbara and Richard, who bought the property 21 years ago. After brunch, they showed our group a short informational video so we could learn a little bit about the farm. For example, I didn’t know that it takes approximately two years to fully train a dog to hunt for truffles, or that certain trees lend to truffle growth better than others.
The trees in this trufflery (hazelnut and two varieties of oak) were brought over from Australia’s island state of Tasmania, and we had to sanitize our shoes before entering to avoid cross-contaminating the area. We also had to, as the Aussies say, “Rug up,” (bundle up) because the temperatures were in the low 50s Fahrenheit and windy.
The dogs found the first truffle almost immediately by working the wind currents (known as “air scenting”), and began to dig.
Barbara would take over then, carefully excavating the area around the truffle by hand. She explained that the truffles are easy to break if you pull on them or hit them with a shovel, and that until you can get your hands all the way around them, it’s impossible to know how big they are or even if there is more than one.
Truffles may be up to 30 centimeters beneath the top soil (11.8 inches) and sometimes grow intertwined so tightly with the tree roots that they can’t be removed without damaging the tree, and are thus left behind.
She told us that during the last few seasons, 26 truffles came out of one location and 50 out of another! Richard explained that the drier the ground is, the harder it is for the dogs to triangulate the truffles’ location.
Barbara picked V. to excavate the second truffle that Fahren found, which he did successfully without breaking it. The soily, rich scent of a truffle smells decadently distinctive, and quite unlike anything else I’ve smelled.
The haul for the day was 192 grams, or 6.7 ounces. Surprisingly, because fresh black winter truffles sell for A$2.50/gram, the total value was A$480 ($351 USD)!! Apparently the record size for a single truffle was about 250 grams.
We did not buy any, but we enjoyed tasting and seeing them come out of the ground. The farm also has a small vineyard, and produces Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.
The price was a wee bit steep at A$88/pp ($67 USD), considering the brunch was kind of small, but for the three hours we spent there and the experience, it was something we enjoyed and that we won’t soon forget. The drought across Australia right now is crippling farmers and permeates the news cycle. Richard told us that the kangaroos (which eat on average six pounds of grass daily) are so numerous despite drought conditions that some farmers can’t keep their sheep fed. In the future I will write a post about kangaroos and the way they are seen as either a national icon or a pest to be culled. It is an interesting and I think little-known debate that becomes especially intense during times of limited resources.
We capped the afternoon off with a visit to the famous Bredbo Christmas Barn to buy some Australian-themed Christmas ornaments. The place simply has to be seen to be believed!
Until next time!