Finding black gold - Truffle hunting in Canberra

It doesn't take much to get Snuffles, a small creamy-coloured American Cocker Spaniel with a cute inquisitive face, excited about truffle hunting. 

Although much loved, it's clear she is a working dog and her owner Sherry McCardle-English, who owns French Black Truffles along with husband Gavan, says that's all part of the plan.

There are too many things to possibly distract Snuffles from her task, like the aeroplanes departing close by from Canberra’s airport and those tasty looking ducks at the back of the paddock. 

Snuffles in action sniffing out black gold.

But when Sherry calls out in a loud, high-pitched voice “find truffle, find truffle”, Snuffles is off, zigzagging across the oak tree filled field to find truffles and receive her reward.

“I never thought I would be running around a field after a dog at my age” says Sherry. But she is and she loves the green change which has seen her retire from her career as a counsellor and Gavan sell his Canberra engineering firm to live on their property and grow truffles just outside Australia's capital.

It took some dedicated internet research, but Sherry was able to discover that Canberra’s climate of 35 degrees plus in summer and dry, cold winters was a good match for some of Europe's favourite truffle fields. The soil was a different matter and it took 80 ton of lime to turn the poor infertile soil into land suitable for the 2500 truffle spore inoculated oak and hazelnut trees that arrived from Tasmania.

Snuffles gets her reward for finding a truffle

Sherry carefully scrapes the soil to expose the truffle

Ten years later the oaks are still small, not much more than head height, but their shallow root systems encouraged by deliberately low watering, are yielding black gold on a regular  basis.

Sherry says the trees are all checked once a week as the growing life of a truffle is about 12 days.  If one of the five dogs doesn’t pick it up on the first sweep, they get it on the second.

Once Snuffles identifies the spot, Sherry digs carefully into the soil, sniffing for the distinctive truffle aroma as she goes.  Just a few centimetres under the soil, the dark rounded surface of the truffle is revealed and gently prised from the dirt.  Later it will be carefully washed, dried and weighed.

Our haul of truffles ranged from 16 to 35gm which adds up to quite a bit at the cash register. Expect to pay around $50 for a smallish truffle.

You can join a morning or afternoon truffle hunt at French Black Truffles every Saturday until August 17.  The hunts cost $60 for adults and $45 for children from 10 years.

What is a truffle?

Scientists have established that the black truffle (tuber melanosporum) exudes up to 80 different components which produce its unique aroma. Some say they smell like liquorice or molasses while others cite smoked oysters of cooking cauliflower.

In France a tree will produce the fruiting body for at least 100 years and, as the tree’s root system grows, there is an expected increase in productivity.

Truffles are a healthy food – they contain no fat, have a high water content and are high in essential minerals and trace elements. The history and literature of the truffle goes back to the early Romans.

The truffle varies in size from 2 cm in diameter to the size of a grapefruit, with the average size being the size of a golf ball. The outer layer of the truffle looks crusty and is black in colour.

Bottom line: Fun and informative, this hunt was a great experience.
Best tip:  The truffle season is short.

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Kerry Heaney

Disclaimer: Ed+bK was a guest of Australian Capital Tourism.