I needed a shower after my last run in with a truffle. Although dog hair and dirt are signs of a successful truffle hunt, they hardly speak to the well-known glamour factor of the enigmatic truffle. My most recent experience however, couldn’t be more different.
The wind and rain battered my car as I twisted up the winding road in darkness towards the beckoning glow of the National Arboretum’s Visitor Centre. It was the much anticipated nights of the Truffle Festival Program – the Truffle Gala Dinner. It was to be a dinner of five courses with matching wines, all revolving around the unsightly fungus that grows so successfully around the Canberra region.
As I approached the impressive hall, the melodic tones of live saxophone met my ears. Spectacular by day, the high vaulted hall had been transformed into a space fit for a gala dinner in celebration of the truffle. Wafts of truffle popcorn came from every direction as well-dressed waiters wove their way through the guests. Either everyone was abuzz with fervour for the truffle or the truffle infused vodka that was being passed around was already going to their heads… maybe a bit of both.
Rows of round tables were elegantly set with white tablecloths and so many utensils that there was almost no room for our meals. Amanda Whitely, the founder of Her Canberra, was the MC for the evening, and after taking a couple of minutes to calm everyone down she began by introducing Janet Jeffs, the head chef of Ginger Catering at the Arboretum and passionate advocate of the Canberra region.
This was not just a truffle dinner. This was a dinner that exhibited the Canberra community at its best. Executed by a team of chefs from a selection of the best Canberra restaurants, the dishes and their matching wines drew upon local truffle farms and wineries.
The first course started with style. Brought to us by David Revel, the executive chef at Rydges Capital Hill, it was a 65-degree egg with a beautiful silky texture set in an emulsion of fois grois. The sweetness of the spiced bread, almost gingerbread-like in taste, perfectly off-set the richness of the fois grois and truffle that was shaved over the dish. The sumptuous flavours of the dish were balanced well with robust a local white – Lark Hill’s ‘Mr. V’.
The next dish to delight our tastebuds was created by chef Alex O’Brien from the Boathouse. I was at first wary of the idea of truffle savoy cabbage, but my doubts were soon blown out of the water when I cut through the perfectly cooked leaves and tasted the creative combination of raclette cheese, bone marrow and truffle brioche which formed a tasty crust on the top. This course was paired with a smooth Pinot Noir from Lerida Estate.
The third course was under the control of Hotel Hotel’s Monster Kitchen & Bar chefs Sean McConnell and Daniel Flatt. They spoiled us with a 9+ wagyu rump that had that melt-in-your-mouth factor of butter. Another great red wine match, this time an alternative variety of a Freeman Secco Rondinella Corvina.
We had a quick reprieve between courses at this stage to have a Q&A panel, enriching our overall understanding of truffles. Jayson Mesman from Canberra’s only Truffle Farm melted hearts with his story of how he became a truffle farmer and his rescue dog became a truffle dog, while Chef David Revel some insight on how to use truffles at home. Lerida Estate winemaker Anne Caine finished off the Q&A, talking us through wine matching with truffles.
One of the most memorable aspects of the evening for many was passing three large truffles around the room. It was enriching to see how their pungent odour and bumpy texture translated so beautifully into the very diverse dishes. Jayson from the Truffle Farm did consequently have to spend part of the night looking for an AWOL truffle, but of course there couldn’t be truffles without a truffle hunt!
Too soon we reached our last course. Ginger Catering chef Frankie J. Bodel and the team astonished everyone with a trio of profiterole truffles – choux pastry that had been dyed with bamboo charcoal to give them truffle-like appearance! The dessert’s matching wine was a sweet red which, while surprising, was the perfect fold for the creative dessert.
It was at the end of the night when we applauded all of the chefs that I looked around the room. I had chatted to people as far as Queensland who had come to join in the festivities, people in their early 20s, as well as seasoned truffle dinner goers, local farmers, wine makers and some of the best chefs in Canberra.
I then realised my new appreciation of the truffle… in its ability to bring people together.