Most food lovers would have had a similar experience to me – there would have been a time, a place and something you ate that completely shifted your views on what food was and how good it could be. For me the time was in late 2004, the place was Tetsuya’s (keep in mind this is back when he was rocking 3 chef’s Hats, placed 4th Best Restaurant in the world in the Top 50, Best Australasian restaurant of the year, etc), and what was the thing I ate that utterly changed my life? It wasn’t his famous Confit Ocean trout – it was the truffle butter that came along with the bread.
You have to understand that back in those days most cafes were serving up “big breakfasts” (where the hell have they gone?) and young people were happily devouring them, choosing portion size over indulgence each and every time – nothing like how it is now. My point is, the apple crumble from City Extra which I thought was the SHIT – was now just plain old…shit. Everything I knew about food changed after that truffle butter and nothing could ever be the same. So when the opportunity came from VisitCanberra to head to down for a truffle hunt and cooking lesson, I naturally lost my mind and graciously accepted.
It was a cold, drizzly, cloudy weekend in Canberra but the rain eased up as I pulled into Ruffles Estate. Even with the clouds overhead, you cannot help but enjoy the tranquility and calm that you get on a big property away from the city. We are greeted by Andrew from 3 Seeds cooking school who would be handling the cooking side of things and Jason who would be taking us out on the grounds for the truffle hunt. After some history about the grounds and run through the itinerary we were off.
I’ll spare you the lecture but truffles are essentially a fungus that grow underground near the roots of trees and have been sought after for centuries for their pungent aroma and robust taste. I had no idea, but Canberra’s climate apparently lines right up with that of Southern France, which makes it an ideal place to grow truffles naturally. At Ruffles Estate they grow them under a variety of French & English Oak trees as well as Hazelnut trees; but before we could even lay a step onto the fields where the trees were, we needed to tap the soles of our shoes into a bleach solution to kill off any unwanted spores that we may have been tracking. (They take things seriously out here and at $2500 per kg you realise why!)
It was at this point we met the star of the day – Samson the truffle dog! Since he was a pup Samson has been trained to sniff out those lumps of black diamonds and has been doing it successfully for the last 7 years; so successfully that Jason has been offered 60,000 euro for Samson but he assured us that Samson has never been and never will be for sale. What happened next was quite a feat to see. As soon as Jason let Samson off the leash and told him to “find one” he was off like a rocket and the next thing you know Samson is sitting by the foot of a French Oak tree patiently waiting for us to catch up to him.
Another simple request to “show me” had Samson pawing away at the dirt, showing us the spot where the truffle was buried. From here Jason stepped in and continued shifting the dirt to find our buried treasure. Every now and then Jason would stop to smell the dirt for hints of truffle (which we realised was quite prevalent when he passed the dirt around for us to smell). It wasn’t long until we hit the jackpot with an A grade French black truffle. I always thought truffles grew quite deep in the ground but it actually wouldn’t have been more than 10-15cm from the top soil.
After a few more rounds of truffle hunting, where we were even given the opportunity to dig out some truffles ourselves, we headed back to the shed to join Andrew, who had been busy prepping for his master class for cooking with truffles. Upon approach to the make shift cooking school, there was an unmistakable aroma of cooking truffles wafting through the crisp country air that warmed our souls whilst the cauliflower truffle puree warmed our icy bodies (scroll down for the recipe). Andrew began the class by explaining that there is more to cooking with truffles than simply shaving them over the top of the dish at the end; rather the better way to cook with truffles is to infuse them into various base ingredients and layer the truffle flavour into the dish to create a bigger, more satisfying result. This can be done by creating truffle cream, truffle butter, truffle eggs, etc.
The first dish he showed us was one of the all time classic truffle pairings – truffles with scrambled eggs. Using the principle of layering the truffle flavours he talked about earlier, Andrew combined truffle infused eggs with truffle cream, a pinch of truffle salt and cooked the eggs off in truffle butter. The perfume engulfed the roof, creating one of those “holy shit” moments. I could not keep the smile off my face as he began to plate them up for us, and shaving a piece of fresh truffle over the top as a finishing touch. The butter and cream really brought out the sweetness in the truffles and the dishes kept on coming.
The next dish Andrew showed us was something I’ll definitely do sometime soon. The pillow of butter puff with scallops and a truffle cream sauce was a sight to behold. Scallops are the perfect vessel to carry the rich earthy notes from truffles. This can be done by mixing a small amount of shaved truffle with the scallops and letting them marinate for 20-30 minutes followed by a quick sear in truffle butter. A cream sauce made from leek, truffle cream and fish stock was made to top off the scallops before they were devoured by the group.
Look at all that shaved truffle!
Everyone loves a good risotto and Andrew explained that the truffle infusion done with the eggs can also be done with rice by simply popping a fresh truffle in a box of Arborio rice. This was the most fragrant risotto I’ve ever come by. To go along with the risotto was a plump and juicy duck breast which was pan fried and then finished in the oven. The slight gaminess of the duck worked very well with the richness of the risotto, especially as Andrew finished it with shavings of truffle infused parmesan and fresh truffle. You might be thinking “that’s a lot of truffle – were you over it yet?” Hell no – you should be put in a dark corner and beaten with a sack of oranges for even thinking such things.
Usually about now I start making plans in my mind about where the closest burger place is; I mean you never really get “full” at these types of tasting/cooking classes – surprisingly that was not the case here.
Next thing we know, Andrew pulls a huge bag of beautiful veal eye fillets out of his box of goodies that have been cryovac’d with – you guessed it… truffles! Doing this allowed the truffle to really intensify the meat; but why veal and not some kind of beef or lamb? Because the strong flavours of beef or lamb would simply overwhelm and mask the truffle completely; thus lighter, more subtle meats like chicken, veal and pork work better with truffle. Topped with a rich triple brie truffled cheese sauce, this dish fulfilled both my primal need for red meat as well as my more gourmet needs for multi-layered yums.
Just when I thought we were done, Andrew had one more trick up his sleeve. For dessert, he unveiled to us his truffle truffle. No that is not a typo – by using the truffle infused cream in place of normal cream, it brings out a chocolaty attribute to truffles that I’ve only ever read about. When topped with a generous slice of fresh truffle, this would have to be one of the most decadent desserts I’ve had the pleasure of stuffing into my mouth. Taking it one step further by matching it with a nice sherry put me right into my happy place.
Since returning home, I’ve had friends ask me if it was worth it for them to go on a truffle hunt & cooking trip. I’ll tell you what I told them. To experience eating truffles in a myriad of ways is something that should be on every “foodies” bucket list (I really hate that word but it’s the only word I can think of to describe people who have an active interest in what they eat). Whether you do this in a fine dining establishment or one of the many truffle farms in Canberra is up to you. I will say however that being able to see a dog sniff a truffle out and then dig it out of the ground yourself. puts you in a whole other place that sitting in a restaurant cannot do. The knowledge, ideas and memories that I have been able to take home from the cooking lesson with Andrew from 3 Seeds goes further than what I could have pieced together on my own while sitting at a restaurant. So maybe what I ate wasn’t as fancy as a restaurants truffle degustation menu – but I like it that way, it felt honest and for lack of better words… real, as they were things that I could bring to my home kitchen.
Like I said earlier, after eating Tetsuya’s truffle butter I knew my life would be different (sounds over dramatic I know). Coming full circle 10 years later- did I think I would be an exec in a multinational hospitality group 10 years ago? Of course not, but that is precisely the magic of a life changing experience. I’m not saying that a truffle hunt will change your life (maybe it will) but it is something that I will never forget; a memory that I hold dear and will carry with me into the future… and I’m sure anyone that goes will feel the same way too.
Andrew from 3 Seeds Cooking School was kind enough to give us his very easy to make recipe for the Truffle & Cauliflower puree (which you can see him serving above)
- ½ cauliflower
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 tbs truffle cream
- Truffle cream
- 500ml thickened cream
- 20g whole truffle
- To make the truffle cream, place the truffle in the cream and leave to infuse for 3-5 days in the fridge. This truffle can then be pulled out, rinsed and pat dry, then used again in truffle butter.
- For the cauliflower puree, cut cauliflower into chunks and place in a saucepan with seasoning & stock.
- Bring to the boil & simmer until just soft (5-10 mins).
- Once cooked puree with a stick blender & mix in the cream.
21 June – late August 2014
The Truffle Festival is an 8 week celebration of the local Black Perigord Truffle harvest. Over 45 participating venues across the region offer the opportunity to taste and experience the prized truffle with events ranging from gourmet degustation dinners, truffle dishes at cafes, pastries, cooking classes and demonstrations, wine tastings and matchings, farmers markets, truffle hunts and more. For more information, go to trufflefestival.com.au
Hunt and Cook package
2014 event dates are June 15, 22 & 29; July 13 & 20; August 3 & 10
11:30am – 1:30pm
$155/person (child 10 – 15yrs $115)
Places are limited to 20 people
23 Mt Majura Road, Majura
Phone: (02) 6295 7722
I Ate My Way Through travelled to Canberra with thanks to Visit Canberra