Winter is truffle season around Canberra and the NSW Southern Highlands – even as far as Bredbo on the way to the snow. And the time of harvest – from late June to August – is marked by the Truffle Festival, now in its nineth year.

Sunday 18 July marked one of the quaintest of the festival events – the Blessing of the Truffle Dogs at Tarago Truffles. The dogs came in all shapes and sizes, from Jack Russells to cattle dogs to fluffy Lagotta Romagnolos. The attendant crowd of humans was here for the service, the truffle hunt to follow and then a truffle-rich lunch under a marquee.

The service by Rev Haydn Swinbourn and Tom Frame was held in the Truffierre and was both brief and moving. However, the canine members of the congregation clearly regarded it as mere religious dogma, particularly when the dog chosen to sit on the pedestal to be blessed decided that the dog at the base wasn’t being sufficiently respectful. They were quickly separated as the other dogs looked set to take sides in the schism.

Formalities concluded, we all went looking for truffles. As we walked I asked Damian Robinson of Turalla Truffles why they don’t use pigs?

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The adorable truffle dogs steal the show

“Have you seen the hands of any of those European truffle farmers?” he replied, “They are all missing fingers. Pigs eat truffles so you have to grab the truffle before the pig does – that doesn’t always work out. Dogs quietly wait for their reward.”

I asked if any dog can find truffles? “Yes, but some dogs are more nose-orientated than others and these are the ones we train. A three month-old Jack Russell of mine found his first truffle yesterday.”

The truffle industry is less than 20 years old in Australia, but they are now being farmed in WA, Tasmania, Victoria and around Canberra. The NSW/ACT ones are the closest to a capital city of any truffles in the world.

Many truffle farms let visitors participate in truffle hunts. It’s fun and there’s a lot of excitement when the dog stops and starts digging for a truffle. It has to be checked that it’s ripe and ready to be harvested – by that stage, even the dirt around the truffle has that rich smell of truffle. And they fetch about $2 per gram so that black lump is likely to be worth over $100.

Sometimes the dogs themselves are the feature. Barbara Hill of Macenmist near Bredbo, NSW has an annual get-together for her Lagotta Romagnolos and others of the breed. They hold truffle hunts on the weekend into September.

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Keen hunters venture out with their truffle dogs

So what’s a truffle? It’s a delicious and expensive fungus that grows underground around tree roots. It’s grafted onto an oak, for example, so the tree and truffle grow in symbiotic relationship – and they need cold weather to ripen. All the Australian truffles are black or Perigord truffles that grow with oak or hazelnut trees.

The smell and flavour of truffle is indescribable but immediately recognisable. It’s a perfect match with scrambled eggs, cream soups and risotto.

Truffles can be bought in gourmet delis or from the farmers themselves. Wrapped in paper and stored in a jar in the fridge, they’ll keep for a week or so. They can simply be shaved onto dishes or added to oil or cream to infuse the flavour.

Winter, with its clear days and crisp frosty mornings is a great time to visit Canberra and the Southern Highlands. And there’s truffles in all forms. The Truffle Festival website lists what’s on and the range is considerable.

If you are interested in extending the experience, consider BentSpoke Brewing in Braddon, ACT, a very attractive craft beer pub. One of its more unusual beers is the Silverback, which runs through BentSpoke’s custom Hopinator to infuse it with cumquats, cinnamon, juniper berries, cloves, vanilla, and truffles. It’s a remarkably smooth, drinkable brew.

Several Canberra restaurants have special truffle menus during the festival. Benchmark Wine Bar has a name that suggests it’s all about wine but that’s far from the case – the menu here is excellent and matches the wide-ranging wine list. Each Wednesday, its all-female kitchen prepares a Truffle Degustation that changes each week but may feature a cauliflower and truffle soup, an angel-hair vegetable pasta with truffles, beef cheek with truffle mash potatoes and a truffle panna cotta. The price is a very-reasonable $89 or $119 with matching wines.

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Take home some truffle-infused brie as a delicious memento of your stay

If you’d like some truffle cheese to take home, head for Mount Majura Vineyard, which offers a truffle Flinders Island brie. You can taste it there with the vineyard’s matching wines.

The hotel group associated with the Truffle Festival is Accor and it offers special rates across its Novotel, Mercure and Ibis properties in Canberra here. We chose the Novotel on Northbourne Avenue that wasn’t just central to everything but had the Benchmark Wine Bar on the corner of the block. It was a pleasant stay, everything worked well and there’s car parking below the hotel.

There are truffle events throughout the festival and many restaurants including the Southern Cross Yacht Club, Chifley’s, Redsalt, Bicicletta, Contentious Character, Highgate House, the National Press Club, Foodish, Agostinis, Blackfire, Poachers Pantry, Pialligo Estate, Pod Food and Ibis Styles Eaglehawk as well as Benchmark offer special truffle meals. Collector Wines has a truffle dinner on July 1.

Tarago Truffles, Macenmist, Turalla Truffles and Blue Frog Truffles that started the whole Truffle Festival, all offer truffle hunts.

One of the big events is the Truffle Festival Market Day, which will be held at Westfield Belconnen on Saturday July 27. There will be cooking displays, stalls, and truffles and truffle dishes to buy.

Truffles perfectly match the winter season. We’re fortunate that, for most of us, a truffle farm isn’t far away. Canberra, with its galleries, museums, sights and booming food scene, especially in Acton and Kingston Foreshore is an ideal winter destination, now infused with truffles.

Do you love truffles? Have you ever been truffle hunting?

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