“It’s about sex,” says Stefano Manfredi with a grin. “In Italy they used to use male pigs because the truffle smells like the female pig’s sex gland.” The chef looks cosy in a paperboy cap and heavy coat. He’s ready to lead an early morning truffle hunt with staff from restaurants at The Star – including Manfredi’s Balla, along with Momofuku Seiobo and Sokyo – on board.
“Now they use dogs and turn them loose and you have to run to keep up with them,” says the chef, noting that all truffles are wild foraged in Italy.
Australian truffles are grown on farms. It’s a more orderly, if somewhat less romantic way to hunt according to Manfredi. But while it might lack some of the rawness of the Italian experience, Australian truffles are earning a reputation as being on par with international standards. Despite the farm surrounds, there’s no less excitement when it comes to the thrill of the hunt.
The group is at Pat de Corsie’s Rosewood Farm in Marulan, between Goulburn and Bowral in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, and the black truffles (tuber melanosporum) grown here are as local as you can get for The Star chefs, typically landing on tables within two days.
“A truffle is 85 per cent water and loses up to a gram a day,” says Duncan Garvey, who was responsible for introducing truffle farming to Australia and co-manages 30 farms including Rosewood.
So just what does a truffle hunt look like in Australia? Expect a picturesque piece of land in a cold cell, not too wet and with free-draining rocky, lime-rich soil. There will likely be rows of neatly planted and well spaced trees, grown from root stock provided by Garvey and inoculated for black truffle with spores from France, grown in Garvey’s Perigord Truffles of Tasmania nursery. The trees are usually a mix of oak and acorn and it’s roughly a five-year investment to establish the trees before you find out if the plantation will yield.
“There’s so much that we can’t control,” says Garvey of the process. “But there are some things we can influence and so we work with those.”
At Rosewood Farm, neat rows of trees spread spindly branches above soil carpeted with iridescent green moss. Trees are numbered and the yield of truffles under each is closely monitored for future reference.
“No one uses pigs [for the truffle hunt] anymore” says Garvey, and there’s a couple of reasons for this. Firstly they can damage the truffles in a bid to eat them, and secondly they are large animals that are hard to handle.
Common practice now is to use trained dogs. On this trip, Lilly the Kelpie is nosing out the crop. There are special breeds of dog used for truffle hunting, but any dog that responds well to positive reinforcement training can be used. It takes three months to train a truffle-hunting dog for the basics, but 12 months to make a proficient hunter.
The group starts out working into the wind, and Lilly is let out on her lead to follow the root systems of the trees. When she smells a particularly pungent scent of truffle she paws diligently at the earth and then waits expectantly for a reward. The truffle harvester’s job is to smell the earth and decide if the aroma of truffle is strong enough to dig, the truffle imbuing the surrounding soil with its aroma as it ripens. If the harvester decides the truffle is ready, then it’s a simple process to scratch around and uncover the truffle, which can be up to six inches down.
There’s a heady and humus-like sweetness to the smell of the earth, which intensifies to a woody musk. But it’s the rush of fingers brushing buried treasure that gets the group whooping with delight. Eager hands pass the bulbous black lump around estimating how much it weighs and by the end of the morning the group has unearthed just under two kilograms of black truffle and every fingernail is crusted with black earth.
Once the hunt is over, the truffles are cleaned with a damp cloth or rough brush and graded by weight. At $3 per gram even the smallest truffle is a gem worth buffing up ready for shipping.
This particular truffle hunt is finished with a tasting for the chefs. A fresh truffle dusted off and sliced directly onto steaming hot plates of lasagne and dishes of milky buffalo mozzarella, thin slices falling away from the mandolin as Manfredi treats the group to the freshest truffle you can get – one pulled from the earth with your own hands.
“It’s best with something farinaceous,” says Manfredi. “Rice, pasta, potato. The smell and flavour of the truffle is released with a little heat, but not too much, 52–56 degrees.”
And keeping it simple is best. “Just put a little over some poached eggs, shaved over the top and then eat it.”
For a complete truffle experience, head to truffle month this August at The Star where Balla, Sokyo and BLACK by ezard will be offering three-course truffle dinners.