Foraging for black truffles

A prized black Perigord truffle

A prized black Perigord truffle

I’ve always been intrigued by truffles. And I’m saddened by their current identity crisis.

How is it that this rare, expensive, hyped-up fungi can appear everywhere? Making a cameo in your eggs during Sunday brunch, moonlighting in your local Italian joint’s pasta, flavouring salt grinders in the condiment aisle. How can this be?

Chemically produced, synthetic truffle oil, that’s how. ‘One of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known’ according to Gordon Ramsay.

A perfect black truffle

A small but perfectly formed truffle

So it’s been a while since truffle flavoured anything has stepped foot in my kitchen. But my interest in the real deal has not subsided and I’ve been keenly watching the growth of the Australian black Perigord truffle industry.

Around 30 of Australia’s 150 growers are based in the Canberra region; the cool climate is perfect for cultivating truffles, much like its celebrated wines.

It was a bit late in the season when I visited Tarago Truffles so I knew the days of finding bucket loads of truffles were over, but was assured by owners Denzil and Anne that there should still be a gem or two out in the field.

A prized black truffle

Denzil holds up his first prize of the day

Denzil and I bonded instantly over our mutual hate for truffle oil. The only time he’ll go near it is when he takes visitor’s dogs out for a bit of truffle training – he soaks cotton wool in ‘truffle’ oil and uses this to teach dogs how to follow the scent. To train his own dogs he uses real truffle that’s been frozen from the last season.

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A particularly moist truffle is pulled from the ground

Growing truffles is not straight forward, there is no truffle ‘seed’ you buy at Flower Power. Instead an acorn and truffle fungi are joined in a lab to form a symbiotic relationship, 18 months later you plant the truffle fungi in the wild and hope for the best.

Denzil started his truffle journey in 2002 and now has 4,300 oak trees across 9 hectares. During the Australian season (May-August) he takes groups through the land to have their own truffle hunting experience.

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Every foot that steps on truffle territory must first be dipped in chlorine

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And that goes for Utah too

First step is to bathe your feet in chlorine to keep germs out of the paddock and prevent cross-contamination. Even the dogs have to quickly dip their paws in.

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Denzil and Utah set off to find truffles

Then it’s time to break into groups and follow one of the leaders who each have a specially-trained dog – the key to finding truffle gold. We quickly learn that Denzil’s son Matt and his dog Dusty have the canniest noses, leading to the biggest spoils.

Matt walks Dusty through an avenue of oak trees until Dusty stops and starts to sniff a particular spot – chances are this means there are truffles in the ground. Read More

The Budapest bars that would be illegal anywhere else

Szimpla was Budapest's first ruin pub

Szimpla was Budapest’s first ruin pub

I remember the thought that flashed through my mind when I walked into my first ruin pub in Budapest.

This is an OH&S disaster, you would never see this in Sydney, or London, or possibly anywhere else for that matter!

That’s because ruin pubs, as the name suggests, lie within dilapidated shells of abandoned buildings. They predominantly sit in the old Jewish quarter which was left to decay after WWII. In any other city there would be a wrecking ball around the corner, but in Budapest some inspired drinkers decided they might be good for something and slowly they have turned into drinking and party meccas.

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The owl at Instant looks over the crowd protectively if not a little weirdly

This neighbourhood now includes dozens of ruin pubs, all characterised by flea market furniture, psychedelic interiors and an intense feeling you’ve just fallen down the rabbit hole.

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You could actually visit Instant every day, there is that much going on

I had two favourites, the first was Instant (pronounced Inshtant by Hungarians) which takes up an entire former tenement apartment . Within its 23 rooms it offers themed dancer floors, furniture pinned to the ceiling and giant flying owls overlooking the floor. They are fake but you’ll have to look twice.

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The slightly shabby façade of Szimpla

The second was Szimpla, which happened to be the very first ruin pub, kicking off the trend in 2001. It has a fabulous courtyard where you can sit in an old communist Trabant car, order from the vitamin bar, check out the graffiti art, catch films and theatre or rent a bike.

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My favourite part of Szimpla relates to food, of course, and was the farmer’s market that takes place every Sunday. Their mission is to connect the city crowd with local farmers and judging by the crowds, it’s certainly working.

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The giant courtyard is dotted with stalls laden with farm-fresh produce including cheese, fruit and vegetables, honey, cured meats, fruit cordials and homemade pastries. Vendors are friendly and they offer generous samples.

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I spent a good twenty minutes hovering by the truffle stand, if only because I couldn’t believe how many there were, how big they were and how cheap!

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I loved the truffle butter but seeing as I was not going to be near a fridge all day I opted for the truffle salt which had chunks of fresh truffle dotted throughout and proffered the most intense truffle scent I’d ever encountered. A good sized jar was 1800HUF or €4.50 – bargain! Read More