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Sniffing out Canberra's gourmet delicacy

AAP logoAAP 25/08/2016 Stefanie Menezes

Is it curdled cream? No, something sweeter.

I draw the glass jar closer to my face and my nostrils flare as the musky smell emanating from the black subterranean fungus almost overwhelms my senses.

"I've had one woman say she was sure it smelt like death and sex," Jayson Mesman, the owner of The Truffle Farm in Canberra, tells us.

"Another man even said it reminded him of stem cells".

The distinct smell of truffles is known to be polarising but that doesn't stop chefs and foodies alike clamouring to get their hands on the seasonal fungi, which can fetch up to $3000 per kilo.

Although truffles are traditionally found in France, Italy or Spain, its successful cultivation in parts of Australia has seen the industry grow at an unprecedented rate.

At least four so-called trufferies have been established in the farmland region surrounding the nation's capital, thanks to Canberra's particularly cold winters.

Along with farming, Jayson hosts dozens of truffle hunts at his oak and hazelnut tree-lined farm during peak harvesting season between June and August.

Smelling the gourmet delicacy is the first step in preparation for the hunt.

The job of sniffing and digging around for the underground mushrooms goes to a brood of adorable dogs that Jayson has rescued from shelters.

He chooses Simba, an unsurprisingly friendly chocolate labrador, to accompany our group on this brisk winter's morning.

"It takes me about a week to train them to recognise the odour," Jayson, who worked as a law enforcement dog trainer for 12 years, says.

Pigs are traditionally used for truffle hunting but dogs are easier to train and work with - especially when there's a group of apprehensive strangers following them around.

As Simba darts from one tree to another, I consider the well-documented reputation of truffles as one of the world's finest aphrodisiacs.

Simba sits patiently at the base of his first find, leaving Jayson to drop to his knees and carefully dig up the soil, using his fingers and a small trowel to smell and check for the scent.

The hard lump Jayson finally pulls out is an odd-looking piece of black gold, circular in shape and about 10 centimetres wide.

The largest truffle ever unearthed in Australia weighed 1.172kg at a farm in the nearby NSW Southern Highlands.

None of the last four delicacies found in Simba's one-hour forage come that close in size, but the last one leaves Jayson particularly curious.

"I think it might be defected because it has quite a pungent smell," he says, as he slips it into a plastic sleeve.

Back at the farm, slices of brie on crackers topped with truffle-infused honey, are handed out to the now-hungry group of fungi hunters.

The sweet undertones of the truffles shine when infused with honey. They can also intensify a meal by bringing an earthly flavour - try grating them thinly onto hot food like eggs or pasta.

As I help myself to my third cracker, it becomes clear to me that the truffle's lusty reputation has a lot to do with its intriguing and increasingly delicious taste.

Jayson meanwhile twirls his last find around his nose, a look of puzzlement on his face soon turning into a smile.

"It's not defected, and it's smelling sweeter by the minute," he says.

"This one could definitely spice up the bedroom".

If that erotic taste involves a piping-hot porcini mushroom risotto garnished with shavings of black truffle, or a triple-cream cheese with a big dollop of truffle-infused honey and walnuts on top, then I'm in.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: The Truffle Farm Canberra is based in Majura Valley, about 15 minutes drive from Civic. It's only five minutes away from Canberra Airport.

STAYING THERE: Vibe Hotel Canberra is offering weekend packages for two during truffle season, including a truffle hunt, wine tasting and platter at $399 per couple. Guests at Hotel Kurrajong in Canberra, meanwhile, will be able to sit through a five-course truffle dinner with matching wines priced at $135 per person.

PLAYING THERE: Truffle season runs from early June to September. Sunday hunts are often sold out so book early to ensure your spot. Truffle hunts will set you back $65. The farm also offers cooking class demonstrations or hunts accompanied with breakfast or a degustation lunch cooked by the on-site chef.

*The writer travelled as a guest of Vibe Hotels Canberra.

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