It's a freezing Saturday morning, and I'm going to do some truffle hunting. Or to be more exact, Abbie, a border collie-Labrador mix, is going to do some truffle hunting, and I am going to do some truffle digging.
Truffle Treasures is a truffle farm in central Victoria that will let you get your hands dirty and dig up some 'black gold'. Sisters Sharon and Sue planted holly oak trees inoculated with Perigord black truffle way back in 2007, and they found their first truffles four years later. That's not to say it was smooth sailing – kangaroos nibbled at their trees, wombats dug under fences and allowed rabbits to gorge themselves on the umami-filled wonders, there was too little rain in some years. But through trial and error, they have managed to harness human power (and ingenuity) and dog noses to harvest truffles every week throughout winter.
We start the day with a tea, coffee or sherry in the main building while Sue explains how they got into the truffle business and how the harvest is done. The real stars of the show are Abbie, looking smart in her blue jacket, and her sister Holly, resplendent in red. Holly and Abbie have been training to look for truffles since they were three-month-old pups, and now the seven-year-olds are old hands (old paws?) at detecting the presence of these fungi.
We then divide into two teams, the red team with Sharon and Holly and the blue team with Abbie and Sue. Each team gets a row of holly oak trees to investigate, and we set off. I'm on team blue, so Abbie is leading the way to the underground delights. Without hesitation, she darts under the first tree and scratches once in the dirt to indicate the truffle location. She returns to Sue for a cabana treat, and now it's the humans' turn.
Sue can smell truffles underground, and with a little practice, most of us can, too. Ripe truffles have a strong smell, quite separate from the surrounding dirt – rich, umami and mushroomy are words the come to mind. Unripe truffles don't have as strong an odour – there are several times during the morning when Abbie can smell a truffle but her olfactory-challenged two-legged companions can't. Those truffles are left where they are because they won't be ripe for harvest yet.
But this one is definitely ready, and Sue asks for a volunteer to gently dig in the dirt and find the truffle beneath. A little careful digging, a few scrapes of a technical truffle instrument (commonly called a tablespoon), and we've unearthed a fist-sized beauty. It's the first of dozens we find in about an hour of hunting, guided by the unerring Abbie.
We return to the building to compare our haul with that of the red team. We've been outdone by Holly's valiant efforts, but everyone wins because we all get a cup of cauliflower soup, topped with truffle and cream, followed by chocolate custard made with truffled eggs. The dogs, meanwhile, get a much-deserved nap. Truffles are available in various sizes to buy to take home, as well as products such as truffle oil and truffle cream.
Find out when the next truffle hunt is at the Truffle Festival website.