Turalla Truffles: Buried Treasure of NSW

The truffle’s aroma has been described as being somewhere between sex and old socks, but aficionados are prepared to pay big money for the delicacy.

Turalla Truffles is located on Bungendore Road, Bungendore NSW. Truffle farmer Damian Robinson is striding along a line of hazelnut trees, charting the mysteriously symbiotic relationships in the fungal world, when he offers a theory: “We are one chromosome removed from a pig and that’s probably why we like the smell of truffles so much.”

Damian doesn’t have a pig. He has a fiercely intense Jack Russell that’s a few chromosomes further down the DNA chain but the dog knows his own mind. He doesn’t give a fig about truffles. Frisbee likes Schmackos.

“Find the truffle,” Damian cries. “Find the truffle.” The dog swings into action, slow-motion break dancing over tufted grass, nose snuffling and paw tapping this spot, then that. His quarry has the earthy piquancy of, what, exactly? The truffle pheromone, androstenol, is almost identical to the one produced by male pigs. And men’s armpits.

“Here,” Damian enthuses. He’s down on his knees in a battered beret, digging in the black dirt, disgorging a black diamond. Tuber melanosporum. Job done, Frisbee sits back on his haunches like the good dog he is, beady eyes begging for a Schmacko.

“When you’re eating a truffle, you’re eating an aroma,” Damian reveals, burying his nose in palms cupped around an earthy nugget. “It’s not really a taste. It’s like eating an emotion.”

Turalla Truffles Bungendore NSW

It’s been a bumper harvest at Turalla Truffles, on the Bungendore Road, about 40 kilometres east of Canberra, where the climate is similar to the truffle-producing Perigord region of France. A good season like this one in a crisply cold winter typically follows a hot and dry summer. The best specimen in the 12-week season from June to August weighed a whopping one kilogram. Damian traded the lump as big as his fist to a Sydney provedore within 20 minutes of harvesting, and it was sold on to a Frenchman, who was purchasing $7000 of beluga caviar at the same time.

“I can’t reveal the price,” Damian says with regret. “It’s a shark’s world out there with tight margins for the providores. There’s a guy in India who has been ringing me every day. He wants to import 10kg every week but I keep asking for his credentials. Some buyers have reputations and I’m obviously not going to post truffles until I’ve got the money in the bank.”

There are two types of people: those who think it’s good because it’s expensive; and those who know it’s expensive because it’s good. In this company, it’s probably a crime to talk down a truffle, but even Damian concedes that there are high-end French and Italian restaurants where a truffle shaving costs as much as the yearly earnings of a high-flying hedge funder and tastes, well, as if it’s not really there.

The renegade kitchen confidante Anthony Bourdin famously hit out at all the hype. “Truffles do not make it better,” he declared. His ruling on truffle oil was even more condemning. “If you add truffle oil, which is made from a petroleum-based chemical additive and the crushed dreams of ’90s culinary mediocrity, you should basically be punched in the kidneys.”

Turalla Truffles,  Damian Robinson

Damian is sorry Anthony never made it to Bungendore, but the late legendary Italian chef and fungus fanatic Antonio Carluccio came to open the Canberra Truffle Festival in 2014. He later wrote a letter to The Times in London:

‘The French, noses in the air, have idealised the black truffle of Périgord. They should now watch for competition from Australia. I was at the Canberra Truffle Festival, and the Braidwood truffle will present a real challenge to Périgord. It is up to the knowledge and education of each of us to detect what is arrogance or naturality, but let’s enjoy these jewels of nature.’

Antonio left Damian one of his own jewels — his gnocchi recipe — and counselled to “just keep it simple”. It’s the mantra at Turalla now where, in season, fresh truffles adorn most meals and where, any day of the week, there’s a posse of fungi fanciers waiting for lunch after a hunt. Demand is insatiable for the delicacy once reserved for royalty — lunch bookings sold out three months before the season started this year — and many of the regulars complain bitterly if gnocchi is not on the menu.

“We seem to been captured by our own success,” reflects the cultivator. He’s back at the house now, boots off, apron on, both chef and sommelier in his own kitchen. There’s a frenzy of activity, pans are sizzling pungently on the stove, the family talking exuberantly over each other. Then lunch is served.

Bungendore NSW

“It’s a truffle nest,” Damian explains, wiping a wayward splodge with his apron. A swirl of kataifi pastry has been crisply fried in truffle butter; there’s a knot of braised home-grown fennel; lightly seared scallops tossed in a creamy truffle Madeira sauce; and huge petals of fungi are scattered with reckless abandon all over the plate.

“It’s quite difficult to find words to describe the pleasure you obtain from eating something that has been perfumed or flavoured with truffle,” he admits. “Really, the shavings are just for show, the wanky bit that pleases the masses.”

It’s an event to eat a truffle. What happens next is, in fact, quite indefinable. The world is suddenly noiseless. What’s forked from the plate is, quite possibly, the most muskily orgasmic thing ever brought out of the earth. One imagines a herd of pigs hitch-hiking all the way from Périgord. “It’s often described as a cross between sex and old socks,” Damian interrupts, pouring more wine. “It’s an excitement that goes beyond taste.”

Fungal fantasy at Turalla began by default in 2005. Damian grew up in Paddington, worked at the Sydney Opera House as a sound engineer and become known for his electronica band Wicked Beat Sound System, which, notably, played at the closing of the Sydney Olympics. He married Lindsay Davy, a silversmith by training who became a cattle farmer, having inherited the family property (circa 1820) after her brother was tragically killed in a plane accident. The couple took over full-time management of the farm in around 2003.

One day, Damian read a newspaper report about a person growing truffles in Tasmania. There are ancient oaks growing in Turalla’s well-established garden — one of the oldest in the district — and he wondered if it might be possible to inoculate the trees. Hazelnut and oak trees are, in fact, inoculated as seedlings and planted in winter to begin the slow growing process. “I knew nothing about truffles, except that they were expensive,” Damian recalls. There were no truffle farms then, a little experimentation was going on, but there was no middle ground and while some farmers were ‘for’ truffles, most were not. Damian researched the subject, educated himself, then asked Lindsay’s farmer father, Bill, if he could plant trees on land at the top of the ridge.

Sorting Truffle

“It would have been perfect,” Damian reflects, but instead he was given marginal cattle country at the bottom of the hill. “I remember being enthusiastic but very apprehensive about what I was doing because I was not an experienced farmer and there were those who were very cynical about spending $40,000 on one hectare of truffle farming.”

Three years later, having invited his father-in-law to see something down in the lower paddock, Damian held out a black beauty. It was worth about $400. “Right,” Bill responded, “let’s put an orchard up on the top of that hill.”

The hectare has paid for itself many times over with no end in sight, and Damian has fallen in love with the process of truffle growing, the science of underground pollination that nobody really understands.
There are 2000 trees at Turalla now and, this year, they have produced 150kg. Every truffle is sold. A gram, depending upon shape and smell, can go as high as $2.50. That’s a long way from the world’s most expensive food — the white Italian Piemonte truffle — which fetched an eye-watering £165,000 (roughly $308,000) for a single piece at auction in 2007.

Knowing that, it’s not a step too far away to believe a newspaper report from 1974, where a Parisian banker arrived home to find his cook had committed an act of treachery. She had served the very last truffle in his larder to her friends. He shot her. The judge allegedly refused to try him, declaring it “a crime of passion, completely understandable and completely forgivable”.

Gnocchi Truffle

The French do that sort of thing, apparently. It’s a different world down under and, in the past few years, Canberra has become the truffle capital of Australia. You don’t need to own a Hermes scarf to buy truffles that are readily available in season from several growers at Fyshwick Markets. There’s a large middle class in Canberra and it’s a foodie town.

Damian laments that so few Australian chefs celebrate the short and magical truffle season with simple respect to product. They tend to overpower, or overheat, or blend with “45 different ingredients”. And there remains a strange pretention that dictates the shape of the truffle as almost more important than the aroma.

“You know how it goes,” he says. “Joe Blow takes his new girlfriend out to dinner in a two-hatted restaurant and says, ‘Let’s have a truffle.’ So the waiter comes with a white glove and shaves the perfect circle of truffle over his dish.

The affectation is often worth more to the restaurant than the infusion.”

Infusion is a good word for a truffle merchant who is a musician and composer, still working in the old barn to create sound for Vivid Festival in Sydney and, more recently, as accompaniment to the Badu Gili indigenous animation projected onto the inner sails of the Sydney Opera House.
“More truffle?” Lindsay asks, thus reminding us of the reason for this long lunch for truffle fanciers. There are few places in the world that you can eat as much truffle as you want; relish the all-encompassing experience as if you are King Henry VIII. Generosity confirms addiction. Anthony Bourdin was wrong.

Truffles can make everything better.

A five-course meal and truffle hunt at Turalla costs $240.

For more information, visit turallatruffles.com.au.

Photography Willa Robinson

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