On the scent of black gold

On the scent of black gold

Team effort … Peter, Kate and Rita Marshall with their truffle dogs Shadow and Sal, on their truffle farm near Braidwood.For a dog let loose on a gentle sloping hill bathed in bright winter sunshine, birdsong in the air, Sal looks bored. Standing under a 10-year-old hazelnut tree, the golden labrador-kelpie cross turns her head away as if to yawn. Suddenly her paw comes out and lightly pats the earth in front of her. In spite of all appearances, she has been working hard, all her energies concentrated in her nose, which sits about 20 centimetres above the rich autumnal leaf litter underfoot.

The second half of this crack truffle-hunting team, Kate Marshall, moves in with a slim truffle pick, gently breaking up the soil and scraping it away with gloved hands. She murmurs constantly to Sal, who appears to be patiently waiting for the human to find what the dog already knows is there.

And there it is – a nobbly chocolate-brown truffle the size of an apple. This is the holy grail of gastronomy; the rare, precious and mysterious black Perigord truffle (Tuber melanosporum) that has been the food of kings and inspiration of poets for centuries. Suddenly, Sal is focused, intent, staring – not at the truffle but at Kate’s pocket. Sure enough, a little dry doggie treat issues forth  and it’s on to the next tree.

Hunting is a macho business, full of guns, traps, blood and pain. Truffle-hunting is a gentler pursuit, requiring skill, intuition, strategy, experience, a good nose and a close, trusting relationship between dog and human. ‘‘They have a symbiotic relationship, Kate and Sal,’’ says Peter Marshall, of Terra Preta Truffles near Braidwood, a  historic country town with streets as wide as football grounds. Peter and Kate, sons Keith and Angus, and daughter Rita are all obsessed with these edible fungi; Peter most of all.

When we look at a tree, we see a tree. When he looks at a tree, he sees the other half of the story, buried underground. ‘‘Half the forest is below the ground,’’ he says. ‘‘So when I prune, I prune to create fruit that is invisible and underground.’’

This ‘‘underground fruit’’ is the truffle, produced by the tiny straggly white threads (mycorrhiza) that feed and receive nutrients and moisture to and from the tree.

The truffles’ strong aroma is thought to have been developed to attract animals that would then dig them up, aerating the ground around the tree and dispersing the spores. ‘‘The tree and the truffle depend completely on each other,’’ Peter says. ‘‘In fact, native truffles are vital to Australia’s forest system.’’

A renowned arborist and forester, he brings obsessive scholarship andrigour to the preparation of the soil and selection of tree stock for truffle-growing.

At Terra Preta, he has planted hazelnut and oak, reinstated natural waterways  and ploughed the ground, doing everything possible to turn what he calls ‘‘devastated’’ land (soil compacted from years of animal grazing and cropping, with damage from irrigation, pesticide use and gold mining) into soft, loamy friable soil.

The softer and healthier the soil, he says, the easier it is for the tree roots to spread and truffles to form. Soft and springy underfoot, the soil here is a marvel. You can dig into it with your bare hand and break it up as easily as a rich flourless chocolate cake.

Terra Preta truffles are flown to truffle specialists Friend & Burrell in Melbourne and also on to France, Italy and the US.

Western  Australia harvests the most truffles in Australia, with about 2.3 tonnes in 2011, followed by Tasmania with a 650-kilogram annual haul. In NSW and the ACT combined, half a dozen significant producers provided 300kilograms in 2011, double the result from 2010.

So revered – and expensive – is the truffle in France, young chefs there can only dream of becoming experienced truffle cooks.

In downtown Bungendore, a half-hour drive from Canberra, Alsatian-born chef Christophe Gregoire at Le Tres Bon hosts four young apprentice chefs from France every winter.

Peter explains how he gave each of the apprentices a local truffle to play with. ‘‘I asked one of them how he had cooked his truffle and he looked horrified,’’ he laughs. ‘‘He told me he was only an apprentice; he wasn’t allowed to touch a truffle.’’   The Australian approach to truffles is less about veneration and more about hands-on enjoyment. Fresh truffles are sold at farmers’ markets for about $2.50 a gram, so a 50-gram truffle can truffelise four people for $125, the price of a concert ticket.

As part of the Canberra and Capital Region Truffle Festival, you can get truffle-happy for as little as $6, with a half pint of dark truffled spiced ale at the Wig & Pen public house. Or take home a ball of truffled and herbed butter from the renowned Silo Bakery for $20.

You can go truffle-hunting and then BYO truffle to shave over your lunch at The Lake George Hotel in Bungendore, or just get truffly at top local restaurants such as Pulp Kitchen, Mezzalira and Dieci e Mezzo.

See trufflefestival苏州美甲培训学校.au for dinners, hunts, talks, taste workshops and cooking demonstrations in Canberra and surrounds until July 31. In Canberra, truffles will be sold at the Epic Farmers Market and the Fyshwick Fresh Food Markets in July. In Sydney, Terra Preta will be at Eveleigh Markets on July 14 and July 28.

Jane and Richard Austen of Hartley Truffles and Col and Sue Roberts of Lowes Mount Truffiere will be at The Sydney Morning Herald Growers’ Market, Pyrmont Bay Park, Pyrmont  this Saturday, 7-11amTop truffle tipsKeep your truffle wrapped in a paper towel in a glass jar in the crisper and use as soon as possible, or store with half a dozen eggs in their shells in a glass jar in the fridge for an extra meal of scrambled truffled eggs.Be generous. There’s no point eking out a truffle over several meals. Go berserk with it, as soon as possible, then start saving up for next year.Invest in a truffle shaver, or use a Microplane grater.Shave the truffle over hot food, not cold, as the heat helps release its wonderful aroma. Tryit over scrambled eggs, in cream sauce or over risotto, pasta or polenta.Truffles go well with potatoes, crayfish, sweetbreads, roast chicken and roast lamb, and are excellent shaved simply over hot buttered toast.Warm truffled eggs

6 eggs1 tbsp finely snipped chives60ml milkSea salt and pepper1 tbsp butter30g black truffle

Whisk eggs with chives, milk, sea salt and pepper. Heat the butter in an 18-centimetre-wide pan. When the butter is foaming, add the eggs and leave for 20 seconds. Using a wooden paddle or spoon, slowly push eggs around the pan, sweeping the big, softcurds in front without breaking them up. While still soft, divide the eggs between two warm dinner plates, add a little extra butter to eachand shave truffle generously over the top. Serve with toast.

Serves 2

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