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A weekend of Capital discoveries

Digging for black gold, discovering great dishes - and trying to keep warm!

 

What is happening here?

 

It's a treasure hunt - for one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies. The good news is, anyone can play. But, more of this later.

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Here are some clues about where we have come for this chilly weekend in July.

It's the city where every spring is celebrated by a massive flower festival. This is its thirtieth year, and more than a million bulbs and annuals have been planted to be ready by opening day in mid-September.

It is also a popular spot for hot air ballooning that offers amazing views over the famous lake and important city buildings.

You can see it is a place of colour too, with four distinct seasons so if you can't make it in spring, autumn has its own appeal.

The hint about the important buildings will have given it away of course. Above, is the Australian War Memorial.

Some of these iconic buildings have been here for many years....

...and others are much newer.

Of course, you will probably have guessed by now that this is Canberra, Australia's Federal Capital, in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory)

The entire area - Canberra, and the surrounding Capital Country region of New South Wales – is noted for fresh and fabulous food. Which, of course, is what has lured us here this weekend. There are tasty seasonal treats all year, but winter has its own very special drawcard.

We've come to taste (and search for) one sort of the very freshest luxury food items, only available in Australia during the southern hemisphere winter from June to August. There are several trufferies in the area. Some were begun more than a decade ago, and are now annually unearthing good harvests of truffles which match any in the world. Australian truffles have been exported to Europe and Asia for several years now, and their high quality makes them very popular, and also because they fill a gap in the year when northern hemisphere truffles are not in season.

The Truffle Festival Canberra Region, runs from June to August every year.

 

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In order to have two full days in Canberra, we chose to travel from Sydney on Friday afternoon. It is an easy three-plus hours from city to city, and we arrived in time for dinner in Peppers Gallery Hotel's restaurant.

Canberra is a city geared to bike riders so it's hardly surprising that this restaurant is called Bicicletta (bicycle).

Although it is part of the hotel, like many city restaurants, it is easily accessible from the street, and we found it buzzing with a younger demographic than we probably had expected. On asking, we were told that ANU (Australian National University) is nearby, which also explained the one or two tables where lone diners were deep in studying books!

From June to August the entire city becomes truffle obsessed. This is a fragrant truffled mushroom risotto.

Many restaurants feature special menus using truffles, and Bicicletta is no exception.

My chicken fettuccine with endive and kohlrabi included truffle butter to scent the dish.

The restaurant decor ideally fits the mood with a rough industrial theme, terrazzo floor and this graffiti-like wall. This is where the buffet breakfast is served too.

This is a heritage building, but the bedrooms are contemporary with plenty of seating, something often overlooked in hotel rooms. The heating was good too, and we were most glad of it as that night we had been warned that the temperature in the area would plummet to -6C!

In fact this turned out to be the coldest weekend for the city in a century. We renamed it Canbrrrra from then on.

The thing to remember about frosty nights is that once it thaws, the day will be golden and sparkling with the bluest skies. Our breakfast date next morning was at this bakery where were met by Ruth Roxburgh who you will see on the video (below).

As the market manager for Fyshwick Fresh Food Markets she kindly spent time with us showing us around the many places on offer in this U-shaped centre. All the shops open onto the parking area, so it is easy to access everything very easily - and what a selection there is.

In  Wiffens greengrocers, which has a huge range of fresh fruit and vegetable produce, there is much more as well: fresh sourdough bread from the excellent Three Mills Bakery, eggs, flowers, honey and much more.

Oh, and as it is that time of the year - truffles. These eggs are becoming steeped with truffle flavour because there is a whole fresh truffle in there with them. Whoever buys them will be able to make the most fragrant truffled scrambled eggs they have ever eaten. See the sign for truffle butters? These are not cheap, as they contain over 15 percent of fresh chopped truffles. But what a way to add extra flavour to those truffled eggs or any other dish for that matter. 

The crisp cold climate of the area, linked with brilliant sunshine makes this region ideal for growing many sorts of fruit and vegetables. Apples are glorious, as are pears, and there are chestnuts and walnuts, potatoes, onions, and any shape and colour of tomatoes that you could imagine. The Canberra and Capital Country region also has many wineries producing excellent cool-climate wines. Wine-tasting weekends are very popular with visitors and, with the many restaurants and cafes, both in the city and in the surrounding towns, this the ideal place to relax and spoil yourself.

As you might expect, Canberra with its many embassies and students from other countries, has multicultural feel. You'll realise this when you walk down one of the busy cafe or restaurant strips, or even visit the food end of the Old Bus Depot Markets, a favourite place I usually try to visit when in town. Here, in the ACT, you will find almost any cuisine in the world, much of it prepared in an authentic manner.

A few steps away, the Sea Harvest fish market has some of the freshest seafood you'll see anywhere. Canberra is not coastal as we all know, but it is so well linked by road to both Sydney and its fish markets as well as the south coast of NSW which is also well-known for it rich fishing industry as well as oysters and other seafood.

Truffles are a natural partner for anything fatty, so they are the ideal food to use to infuse cheese, butter or oil. Here you can see that the cheese is from France, and there is a seam of truffle in it which will perfume the entire piece. It is also a hint of what you can do if you buy your own truffle. Here is a comprehensive list of ways to use your own truffles, if you are lucky enough (read, rich enough) to buy one.

Did I happen to mention that they sell for around $2500 a kilogram. That's unless you can find a generous truffle farmer who will sell at a discount.

WATCH THIS VIDEO and take a walk around the markets......

The local honey industry is alive and well, and you will find honeys made by bees drunk on the nectar of flowering gum trees, canola, clover or wildflowers.

While we were visiting primarily to sample the food, it is impossible to overlook the beauty of Canberra, especially at this time of year. The trees may be bare of leaves because of the cold, but even so we discovered that some were budding again already. The man-made Lake Burleigh Griffin, designed by the American-born landscape architect whose name it bears, is central to the city, and here the Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet, complete with its own rainbow fragment, accents it beautifully. In the distance you will notice the National Library of Australia.

In 1912, Walter Burley Griffin's design was the winner of an international competition to plan the new city of Canberra as Australia's federal capital. It is also him you should thank (or blame) for the circular road system and many roundabouts which make a map of Canberra so distinctive. Once you become used to it (or you use a GPS) you will discover that almost anywhere is only ten minutes away from somewhere else. Until then, you may find yourself spending many times that, getting lost and then attempting to sort out the direction again.

Canberra seems always to be evolving, with new places to see and dine at, and this very new addition was well worth a visit.

Chef Matthew Ouwerkerk, has worked in Sydney and Melbourne at high-end restaurants, and uses truffles from local trufferie, The Truffle Farm. It is easy to see by talking to him, and also the food he serves, that he is excited to be heading up the kitchen in this brand new place.  

We have come for a truffle lunch, and it begins with an entree of cauliflower 'steak' with truffle butter, parmesan and chestnuts - and, yes, wafers of fresh truffle on top. This is followed by beef cheeks cooked for 14 hours in a slow oven until meltingly tender, then paired with truffled mashed potato. Bliss!

And, finally, to show that even dessert can feature truffles, a sublime chocolate dessert with truffle ice cream and finely grated fresh truffles for the final touch.

Highgate House, your kitchen is in good hands!

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That evening we dined at Chifleys Bar & Grill at Hotel Kurrajong, one of Canberra's oldest hotels. First opened in 1926 at the birth of the nation’s capital, it was popular with politicians too. Prime Minister Ben Chifley lived at the hotel throughout his parliamentary career, including his term as Prime Minister from 1945-1949 and up until his death in 1951.

Today, although the rooms bear the name 'heritage' in their description, they offer all the most up-to-date inclusions.

Unfortunately, there is only so much food you can eat in one day, and by evening, we'd almost reached our limit. Luckily Chifleys' waiters understood this (it's possibly a common request from visitors to this generous city) and served us small dishes, paired with the local Wily Trout wine, presented in the restaurant's heavy etched wine glasses. The ambience was relaxed, with quiet background music, and it was the perfect environment in which to enjoy a basket of artisan bread with herb butter followed by excellent Hervey Bay scallops with wakame butter, and wasabi dressing, before rugging up and returning to our hotel.

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Have we mentioned it was cold on this winter weekend?  It was freezing, as you can see (above) but we learned something while discussing the weather with a local. 'It doesn't snow in Canberra,' we were told. That is because Canberra is at 600 metres elevation, and snow only falls above 800 metres.

It hadn't snowed, of course, but it had been a frosty night. We left Canberra early for the hour's drive to the truffle farm, excited about participating in something not many people are able to do.

Truffle. Hunt. Are there any two words that can charm a food-lover's heart more?

Tarago Truffles is located near the very small town of Tarago, north of Canberra. Denzil Sturgiss (above) with his wife, Anne, and family, moved here in 1993, and then some years later became interested in the idea of introducing truffles to their land. (See more about how they did this on the video)

In 2003 they planted hazelnut and oak trees, bought truffles to begin the process, and patiently waited to see if they could be successful. This makes it all sound so simple, but establishing a trufferie (truffle farm) is a complex and scientific business, and the learning goes on. 'There is still so much we don't know,' says Anne, meaning that introducing old world produce into the climate and soil of Australia throws up many challenges, some without immediate answers.

And so it begins! The group walks the short distance to the trufferie.

Something like this is a great family experience, and we all - children included - had to dip our shoes in the tray so that we would not carry in anything that could contaminate the soil or threaten the truffle harvest.

Meet the dogs, major players in the days activities. With Anne and Denzil's son, Matt Sturgiss, is truffle dog, Dusty. Joker, on the right, is more of a cattle and sheep dog. Both had a wonderful time, and Dusty was rewarded with a small edible treat each time he sniffed-and-scratched to indicate there was a truffle underground.

Here he watches proudly as Matt gets his nose right in the place which Dusty has pointed out, sniffing for the scent of a ripe truffle.

WATCH THE VIDEO to feel like you are taking part too.....

And, yes, there was one, a good size too, with the unmistakable aroma of a perfect fresh truffle.

Once we could see how it was done, anyone could try their hand at very carefully excavating the truffle. It is quite a slow job as no one wants to damage the truffle as this would reduce its sale price enormously. And in case you are wondering: no, even if we had located a truffle ourselves, or even dug one up, we couldn't keep it.

Time to leave, finally, but it's not all over yet....

The bags of harvested truffles have been taken now to the shed to be cleaned, weighed and stored ready for sale. 

Meanwhile Anne has been busy while we were away. She has prepared a country-style lunch of soups and truffle buttered bread with sour cream, cheese - and generous slices of truffles. It doesn't get any better than this. 

Well-fed, we then join Anne in the shed as she explains how the freshly harvested truffles are cleaned and prepared for sale. They are first graded into A- or B-grade truffles. Those that will not be sold to the public are destined for industrial use which may include value-added products such as truffle butter. Those that do not make this grade will be kept for spores, which can be used in inoculating the roots of new trees in a trufferie.

A truffle hunt like this is certainly fun, but it is also a great learning experience and gives people an appreciation for the work that goes into growing and harvesting these precious luxuries.

The truffle hunt offered by Tarago Truffles is just one of around 250 individual activities offered during the three-month Truffle Festival. There are six trufferies in the region which offer truffle hunts.

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Back to Canberra to work up an appetite for more delicious food. 

Pod Food Canberra was that ten-minute driving distance I have mentioned, from our hotel. The site has been well-known in the area for many years, first as a cooking school and now for dining and is well-placed as the suburb of Pialligo seems more rural than you might expect, given its locations to close to the city centre. Here you will find orchards and food stalls, garden centres and of course restaurants and cafes. This restaurant is in an old cottage, and the decor, combined with the friendly buzz of conversation from other diners, and the warmth, gives us the feeling of dining in someone's home.

We begin our meal with a glass each of local Pét-Nat, a sparkling wine made in the style of apple cider, from Hamish Young. It is delicious and wakes up our tastebuds beautifully, especially as we begin with Three Mills sourdough (again) here served with a delicious fennel butter.

Because  this is truffle season, we are offered a truffle menu but (and I never thought I would ever be able to say this) we feel we have feasted so thoroughly on truffles at Tarago that we will forego this treat.

A glance at the menu tells us that Pod Food's chef, Jack Gould, likes to experiment with textures and flavours. The French onion soup goes to Gordon, and it features local chestnuts and comes with bacon and an emmental crouton on the side, not on top as is more traditional. My entree was goat's cheese mousse, adventurously partnered with XO sauce, lightly blanched potato slices, spinach and rhubarb.

Pod Food's dishes do not have names. The menu lists only the components, so we each ordered the ocean trout, broccoli, fennel and apple puree and apple (above) not entirely sure what would come to us. You can see the generous portion of confit ocean trout (above) with its accompaniments.

Good coffee to finish, for me, and affogato for Gordon, concluded our meal.

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Close to Peppers, and recommended by them in the notes in our room for places to dine, is Mocan & Green, a cafe just around the corner. It was worth locating, and we could see that many other people had it on their radar too. Even though breakfast should have been over (we are not early risers) and it was Monday morning, the place was packed, so we took the only available seats at the bar overlooking the open kitchen. That was fun as it was a busy place with plenty going on.

I pointed out the blackboard special to Gordon - mushroom and black rice soup (above)....

 - and he ordered it, pronouncing it 'wonderful!' the ideal antidote to the chilly weather outside. 

I went for a more traditional Three Mills sourdough toast with cream cheese and jam, and coffee of course, while I watched the people lining up outside for their takeaway coffees.

The area around the hotel and nearby buildings has some interesting sculptures in what is described as a 'sculpture garden', and it is worth taking the time to look at them. Canberra is noted for its cultural identity, and there is always something going on in the arts, music or theatre.

Closer to the hotel - just through the back door, really – I bought a 100 percent 'home-milled' rye bread, from A Baker, and some pastries for the road. And, look, here we have another truffle feast planned! They are everywhere in Canberra at this time of year.

There are many other bakeries too in the Canberra region, such as Silo, a long-time local favourite in Kingston, with some of the best pastries and breads in town.

Just on the next corner to Peppers Gallery is a hotel about which I have long been curious. To use the old Wagga Wagga joke - so good they named it twice - Hotel Hotel must be the easiest accommodation on the planet to remember. Its architecture is memorable too, standing tall in what is mainly a rather low-rise city.

Someone had advised us to make sure we saw the staircase when we popped in for a look, and we could see why. The decor in the main area is moody and modern, but the rooms are eclectic and fascinating. You can go for a 'cosy' room, one fitted out nostalgically, a creative one and a 'meandering' room. 

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Our weekend escape was now at an end. In the time we had been here we had shopped and shivered, wined and dined, and enjoyed a surfeit of truffles.

Canberra, we will return. I am hoping it will be in time to see those million blooms at Floriade 2017!

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CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF TRUFFLES?

Make a dish with mushrooms and truffles...

Absorb some truffle trivia...

More about The Truffle Festival Canberra Region.....

Read more on this site...

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And here is the very last dish using the one small truffle I bought from Tarago Truffles:

Find the recipe here....

 


Words and pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Videos: ©Gordon Hammond

Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled to Canberra independently. Although they were accommodated courtesy Peppers Gallery Hotel, and activities and meals were hosted by members of the Truffle Festival, their opinions remain their own.

Words and pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Videos: ©Gordon Hammond

 
 

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