New South Wales isn’t well known for its truffles, with most Australian truffles hailing from Manjimup in Western Australia and Tasmania. But truffles are now being grown all around Australia and New South Wales is no exception.
Last year I saw an episode of Sydney Weekender about truffle hunting in Oberon and I knew I had to do it. Unfortunately a million other people also saw the show and the truffle hunts sold out very quickly. Twelve months later I contacted Lowes Mount Truffiere again and this time around we were in luck. We booked in our truffle hunt and decided to make a weekend of it, so we packed our bags for a road trip to Katoomba and Oberon.
Driving up to Oberon from Katoomba takes just over an hour. We arrived at 2pm to meet Col and Sue Roberts who established Lowes Mount Truffiere in 2002. As ex-cattle farmers, the Roberts’ had the land they needed to start a truffiere. And as a forester Col knows all about growing trees. They decided to give it a go and planted trees that had been inoculated with the truffle fungus and hoped for the best.
Four years later they harvested their first truffles. They now have 500 trees which is quite small when compared to The Wine & Truffle Co in WA who have over 13,000 trees (though they are the largest producer of Black Perigord Truffles in the southern hemisphere). But as Sue said they don’t want any more trees, growing truffles is very labour intensive and they wouldn’t be able to harvest the truffles if they had more trees.
Col and Sue have three types of trees in their truffiere – English Oak (Quercus robur), Holly Oak (Quercus ilex) and Hazelnut Trees (Corylus avellana, the Common Hazel). They grow, harvest and sell the Black Perigord Truffle (Tuber melanosporum).
There are no pigs working on the truffle farm. The hunter of choice is a truffle dog. Morris and Sully are their working dogs who have been trained to be truffle hunters. Sully was out on a truffle hunt in Orange, so we were to be hunting with the gorgeous Morris (I want to take him home!)
As the truffle hunt kicked off Morris was playing up at first, having a bit of a play, he didn’t seem to want to work. We hung back a bit so as not to disturb him, and as the wind travelled in the right direction Morris got a hint of the truffle aroma and off he went.
Morris has a keener sense of smell than Col, so Morris may find truffles that are not ready to be harvested. When Morris finds a truffle he will scratch the ground with his paw and then sit and wait until Col finds the truffle. Col will then get down on his hands and knees, dig down a little and sniff the ground. If he can’t smell the truffle it is deemed not mature enough to be harvested (as the aroma isn’t strong enough) and they leave it for another week. Col judges the ripeness of the truffle by its aroma, if the aroma is strong enough then it is ready to be harvested.
Because truffles grow underground there is actually no way of telling if what Col and Sue are doing to the land is working or not. Some trees produce and others don’t, yet they’ve all had the same treatment. As a truffle grower they are pretty much flying blind, just going off experience and patiently waiting until truffles are sniffed out.
When Col smelled the truffle before his nose was anywhere near the ground we knew we’d struck gold. We each took a turn smelling the ground. The aroma was much sweeter than I had expected. It makes you want to go back for more.
Col gently dug around the truffle and carefully removed it from the ground. He scraped away the excess dirt and inspected the truffle. Sue placed all of the harvested truffles in plastic bags and labelled them with the tree number so they can keep records of which trees are producing and which are not. As the years go by trees that have been producing tend to have truffles further and further away from the tree trunk – where you would expect to find the tree roots due to maturity.
While not the most prized shape, we had found our first truffle. It looked pretty amazing to me but Sue explained there are different categories of truffles – with perfectly round truffles being graded as ‘A’ or ‘Extra’ grade and less circular truffles or those that have been cut up classified as ‘B’ grade.
Truffles have a shelf-life of around 14 days and are best eaten fresh. For this reason Col and Sue harvest each weekend for delivery into Sydney on Mondays.
Further along the truffle farm Morris found more and more truffles. He found three particularly beautiful truffles that Sue exclaimed would be ‘A’ grade (we were a little too excited smelling and inspecting them that we missed the photo op). Sue chatted to us as Morris and Col spent the afternoon with their nose to the ground. Morris found plenty of truffles and we gasped and giggled at each discovery.
At one point Morris found a truffle quite close to the surface of the ground and unfortunately knocked it out of the ground before Col had a chance to even touch it. The truffle was not ripe enough to harvest, but as Morris knocked it out of the ground there was nothing they can do. We could tell it wasn’t ripe as there was no aroma (though Morris could smell it, the aroma wasn’t strong enough for humans yet) and when Col took a nick out of it we saw the caramel centre which is another unripened giveaway. Ordinarily if they find unripened truffles they will leave them in the ground, undisturbed, and inspect them at a later date. There is no telling how long a truffle will take to ripen, they just have to be patient.
With the sun fast disappearing and the wind picking up, we had finished the hunt for the day and made our way back to the house. Morris had done his job and finished the day with a massive bucket of water. Before we knew it he was fast asleep. It must be a hard day’s work!
Col popped the kettle on as Sue started cleaning and grading the truffles. Truffles are brushed to remove the dirt, inspected and weighed. Sue gave the beautiful truffle we were to eat a quick scrub. It’s amazing how much the colour changes, the dark brown dirty blob becomes a rich deep black truffle. It looked and tasted simply amazing.
The taste of truffles is directly related to their aroma, hence the importance of allowing the tuber to mature. The truffles are delicate, earthy and nutty. An aroma and flavour that is impossible to replicate. Many have tried with truffle oil, but Sue explained that truffle oil is made synthetically with chemicals replicating the truffle aroma. As truffles are highly perishable and rot quite quickly Sue is highly doubtful that there is truffle oil on the market that actually contains fresh truffles.
Col and Sue invited us into their truffle kitchen where Col prepared a snack, Sue whipped up some eggs and all the hunters made ourselves a warming cuppa.
I have found a new match made in heaven – goat’s cheese, honey, hazelnuts and truffles. Wow wow wow. Sharp tang from the goats cheese, rich, sweet honey, nuts and heady aroma of truffles all piled high on lavosh. I had never had truffles in a non-hot dish before and instantly fell in love. This will definitely become my new dinner party snack dish!
My favourite way of using truffles is just a shaving on scrambled eggs and Sue had done just that, but with truffled eggs. To make truffled eggs Sue simply popped some truffles wrapped in paper towel into a glass jar, added some eggs, sealed the jar and left it for a few days. Truffle takes eggs to another dimension. We all polished off several morsels of eggy truffly goodness.
But wait, there was more. Col brought out truffle ice cream. Dylan and I were stunned into silence. The truffle ice cream was sensational – one of the best uses of truffle I have ever tasted. And fresh hazelnut biscotti was amazing in its own right. There is nothing quite like fresh nuts.
Many thanks to Col and Sue for teaching us so much about truffles and for welcoming us on to their property. Dylan and I had so much fun we want to do it all again. We took home some of the gorgeous hazelnuts in truffled honey and a packet of raw hazelnuts. We didn’t buy any fresh truffle this time, but we know we can find Col and Sue at the markets (Eveleigh and Pyrmont) each weekend.
Truffle hunts are run from June through to August on Saturday afternoons. The hunts cost $65 per person, start at 2pm, finish at around 4-4:30pm and include the hunt, tastings, tea and coffee. Bookings are essential and you can contact Col and Sue through their website – truffle hunts. Make the most of the short season, get out there and hunt!
Lowes Mount Truffiere
927 Lowes Mount Road
Oberon NSW 2787
(02) 6336 3148
Lowes Mount Truffiere Website