Scents and dollars

On a newly opened truffle field near Oberon, Lance Richardson follows the Labradors.

For those adjusted to the impersonal order of the city, the Blue Mountains present a strange experience. The air opens out but the bush closes in; its buzzing density conceals secrets folded along river lines and hidden in an endless vista of trees and valleys. As you ascend along the freeway and break off for the town of Oberon, silence reigns - with a dash of heightened expectation.

One of the secrets is about to be unearthed.

In France, lore of the truffle is a jealously guarded legacy. Truffle, that strange fruit of fungi that requires a symbiotic relationship with tree roots, conjures images of damp gothic forests and giant foraging pigs.

The first truffle I see is in a glass jar with a dozen eggs. Eggshell is porous; since the truffle works best through infusion, simple foods can benefit from an extravagant transformation in aroma. Truffle lends its flavour and turns a simple meal into something darker and richer, with earthy after-notes that linger in the nose.

Visually, however, the aphrodisiac leaves a lot to be desired. It looks like a piece of coal. The nickname "black diamond" refers to the texture, and certainly the price, but few would call it beautiful. Except, that is, people such as Col and Sue Roberts, who have turned their property at Lowes Mount, near Oberon, into a quiet shrine to the black Perigord truffle and opened it to the public for the first time this year.

Ten years ago, Col explains, they were looking for a new use for their land.

"We just thought it would be rather nice to extend our garden with a truffiere," he says. For most people, a greenhouse would suffice. Maybe some herbs. But he says it in such an unaffected manner that you think: why not build a truffiere, or truffle field? Perfectly reasonable.

The sentiment was shared by a group of determined Tasmanian growers, who used a government grant to buy the spores from France. Since then, truffieres have appeared in South Australia, Victoria and NSW, though the rule of cultivation is a mysterious thing and people are holding the cards close to their chest. "You don't know it's there, so you can't monitor its growth," Col says. You inoculate your trees with truffle spores and set the kitchen timer to a couple of years. Planting in 2002, it took five years before anything was found.

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Patience helps, of course. And the internet. "The day we found our first truffle," Sue says, "we'd never seen or smelled a truffle." There's a mix of satisfaction and disbelief in her voice, like a person who hides valuables, forgets where they are and then finds them again in a routine spring clean several seasons later.

Col announces it's time for the hunt. He wanders out to don the necessary attire and rally the dogs while we group in the kitchen, piling on the layers. In truffle legend he'd be rallying those pigs with their innate ability to sniff out the prize. But, once found, pigs generally try to eat the truffle - or any fingers in their way.

Labradors Morris and Sully are more interested in hazelnuts, except when they're playing to an audience by throwing up false alarms or making grabs for the treat bag.

Outside, hundreds of young trees stretch across the hill and frame the Tarana Valley. We trail at a distance while the dogs prowl between the rows of evergreen oak, English oak and hazelnut. Then the leader stops, paws the ground a little, sits down. Something has been sensed.

Col steps up, wearing overalls that look like a yellow radiation suit, and crouches down to sniff the dirt. If the truffle is ripe, nestled in the roots of a tree, its smell is strong enough for the human nose. Col puts his nose in so deep it comes up black and shining.

After three attempts we strike success. Col nudges the dirt aside, brushing carefully until the outline of a definite lump emerges. The dog gets a victory dance and I cheer but from this moment of liberation the truffle is doomed to decline. It will shed up to three grams a day from dehydration until it hits its target in the form of an appreciative palate.

Thirty grams is a good size. Later, in the car, I work out its value on a calculator. Sue had said: "We get kangaroos and sometimes you think, ooh, there it is, but it's only kangaroo poo." If only kangaroo poo retailed for $2000 a kilogram.

With his nose in the dirt, Col's behaviour suddenly seems perfectly rational, his body folded over like a man absorbed in prayer. Especially when several more truffles are unearthed.

For now, I'll be happy with a taste. We return to the house and Sue shows off truffle butter lining an ice-cube tray. Grate it over raw vegetables, pasta and eggs just before serving. Infuse them in salt. The more I smell their indescribable strangeness, the more they draw me in.

Sue slices truffle finely over parmesan and drizzles some blue cheese with truffle honey and local hazelnuts. Everything is served with steaming coffee and talk of Sydney chefs. Firmly established and here to stay, Sue and Col have decided it is finally the time to let the public in on the industry secret.

And the taste? Subtle at first but with a definite after-note that makes it clear this is a secret worth knowing.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Blue Mountains, Lithgow and Oberon Tourism and Tourism NSW.

Lowes Mount Truffiere, in Oberon, is three hours' drive west of Sydney. Visitors can participate in seasonal truffle hunts in June, July and August, including taste appreciation and the opportunity to buy fresh and preserved truffle products. Truffle hunts are held on Saturdays at 2pm, or by arrangement. Cost is $50 an adult, $20 for children under 16 years. Bookings essential on 6336 3148, or see lowesmounttruffles.com.au.

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