Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mundaring Truffle Festival 30-31 July 2011 (Thoughts on food blogging discussion panel)

In Australia, black truffles successfully grow in Tasmania, Victoria and some parts of New South Wales, but Western Australia produces more black truffles than the rest of Australia combined. In Western Australia, the Manjimup-Pemberton area provides ideal breeding ground for truffles as the region is climatically similar to the parts of France where truffles are grown. With truffle production increasing year after year, there is lots of talk of Western Australia becoming the new truffle capital of the world.

The annual Mundaring Truffle Festival is held at Sculpture Park in Mundaring, Western Australia in the last weekend of July. The Mundaring Truffle Festival is a creation of renowned chef and truffle hunter Alain Fabregues and attracts national and international chefs, and WA’s top chefs and food personalities to offer a variety of learning and dining experiences revolving around truffles. This year some of the special guests included Stephanie Alexander, one of the world’s finest French chefs Philippe Mouchel and Malaysia’s flamboyant Food Ambassador, Chef Wan.

This year was my first time at the Mundaring Truffle Festival. The long table truffle lunches are one of the most popular events at the Mundaring Truffle Festival, where some of WA’s top chefs prepare a four-course meal with truffle themed dishes. The tickets to this event always sell out quickly. On Saturday the long table truffle lunch featured an all-female line up, with Sunday featuring an all-male line up. I had missed out on tickets to the long table truffle lunches but luckily, two weeks before the festival a fellow tweeter was unable to attend the long table truffle lunch on Sunday and offered his spare tickets to me and a fellow blogger Bon Viveur. I had originally planned to go to the Mundaring Truffle Festival on the Saturday as in the afternoon there was discussion panel scheduled on “Food Blogging and the Social Media” hosted by food journalist Max Veenhuyzen and featuring blogger turned editor of Spice magazine Anthony Georgeff, blogger of Abstract Gourmet Matt O’Donohue, restauranteur David Coomer and wine writer Peter Forrestal. As a food blogger, this panel was of great interest to me, especially in the context of recent articles published on food bloggers which have created quite a stir in the twitterverse and blogosphere. Scoring tickets to the long table lunch meant that I ended up spending my whole weekend at the Truffle Festival, making the trip to Mundaring on both the Saturday and Sunday.  But I can’t complain as it gave me an opportunity to fully appreciate everything that the festival had to offer.

Before the festival, my experience of truffle was quite limited. I had tried some truffle butter and truffle oil, and once had a plate of truffle risotto. I brought along my friend Nicola to the festival on Saturday and her experience of truffle was even more limited than mine.

After spending two days consuming a variety of sweet and savoury truffle products and dishes including truffle chicken ice-cream, truffle potato croquettes, truffle macarons, gnocchi and ravioli and mushroom truffle, wild mushroom and truffle pie, truffle risotto, truffled soup, chicken truffle parfait and truffle nutella, I became addicted to truffles. The aroma of truffles is intoxicating and I was completely blown away by how the addition of truffles enhanced and intensified the taste of dishes. They add a dimension of taste to a dish that is hard to describe. I think that my love of truffles also stems from the fact that I love many umami rich foods and truffles contain three different types of umami substances in the form of glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. It was the first time that I have ever felt the need to lick my plate clean to make sure that I had consumed every last bit of truffle because it was too good to go to waste.

There was a Food Piazza where a variety of truffle-themed dishes by some of Western Australia’s noted restaurants and chefs could be purchased for $5 to $20. I generally find the food offered at most food festivals a bit pedestrian, kind of like food court style food. When catering for a large number of people with limited facilities, the quality can suffer. The Mundaring Truffle Festival is different, all the food offered is quality. I guess when you are using such an expensive ingredient (truffles retail at around $3000 a kilo), you don’t want to waste it by making a half-arsed dish, you want to showcase it in all it’s glory and make people understand why it is considered such a gastronomic delight.

The first thing that we tried upon entry to the festival on Saturday was truffle butter hazelnut bread. A thick slice of soft white hazelnut bread with a generous spread of butter that contained bit of truffle and truffle oil was a great way to gently ease our senses into the magic of truffles. 

The truffle chicken ice cream was my favourite dish at the festival offered by Must. When I bumped into people that I knew, this was the dish that I would tell them that they had to try out. The ice cream is made with a chicken stock base and cream, egg yolks, slivers of truffle and dark chocolate shavings. I had read that Russell Blaikie spent three month perfecting the recipe, working to create a rich and creamy ice cream that would work with the earthy flavour of the truffles, with the addition of chicken stock and dark chocolate to round out the taste of the ice cream and provide savoury notes. It was unbelievably good.

The truffle macarons offered by Choux Café were also another highlight. There were a few other stalls selling truffle macarons including Jean Perre Sancho and Rochelle Andonis but I thought that the ones from Choux Café tasted the best. I enjoyed the subtlety of the truffle coming through the macaron and the shell was perfect. 

We also really enjoyed the selection of dishes offered by Incontro. We tried the truffled potato croquettes, and gnocchi ravioli and mushroom truffle. 

The exterior of the potato croquette was crisp but very light, and contained a cheesy potato filling infused with truffle flavour. There was also a generous grating of parmesan and truffles.  This was one of my favourite savoury dishes from the Food Piazza at the festival.

Linley Valley Pork and Mondo Butchers offered a great selection of meat and burger truffle themed dishes. 

The Loose Box Restaurant offered a number of truffle dishes including rillets, pate, soup, apple tart, brie for only $5 each!

Keeping warm in the cold wintery weather with some leek and truffle soup from the Loose Box.

The European Foods Marquee provided a great selection of truffle cheeses. 

As we walked around the festival tasting many different truffle products, I was amazed at the variety of truffle products on offer – oil, butter, vinegar, salsa, cheese, mustard and honey. I wondered how many different things you could possibly make with truffle…. what about nutella? Rochelle Andonis offered Truffella which was truffle infused chocolate and hazelnut. 

You can also buy a truffle inoculated tree for $40 and try your luck and growing truffles in your own backyard. Considering that truffles only grow in very specific climatic conditions it seemed a bit of a stretch to think that anyone can grow truffles, but Alain Fabregues has shown that truffles can be grown outside of the traditional truffle growing regions of Manjimup and Pemberton in Western Australia when he found one on his property in Toodyay this year.

We checked out the truffle dog demonstrations where we were shown how dogs are trained to search for truffles. The dogs are trained by infusing a toy (a towel) with the smell of truffles, and series of games and activities are played with the dogs so that they associate looking for truffles with fun and rewards. 

It was funny to see that when the dog found the truffle infused towel it refused to let go. See my video of it here. 

At 3pm on Saturday afternoon the “Food Blogging and the Social Media” discussion panel was held as a part of the Food for Thought program. The panel was hosted by food journalist Max Veenhuyzen and featured blogger turned editor of Spice magazine Anthony Georgeff, blogger of Abstract Goumet Matt O’Donohue, restauranteur David Coomer and wine writer Peter Forrestal. Whilst there was much potential for a punch up and for some blood to be shed, the discussion was very civil.

The discussions started with each panel member talking about how they fitted into the scheme of things and then looked at different issues surrounding blogging, including the differences between blogging and print media (old versus new media), the influence and affect of blogs and restaurant critics on restaurants, the positive and negative aspects of blogging and also some of the ethical dilemmas. The discussion went for about an hour but could have easily gone for a few hours.

Here are my reflections on some of the points that were discussed (I’ve touched on some of the issues raised and also added in my own views) –
  • A lot of the criticisms against bloggers don’t take into account that a wide variety of blogs exist, and that people blog for different reasons. Some do it purely as a hobby, while others may seek to gain something more from their blog and see it potentially leading to other things. There has been an increase in the use of blogs by companies as a promotional tool with invites to events and cookware giveaways. This calls into question the objectiveness of blogs, as it is more likely that a positive review will be provided and the product/event probably wouldn’t have been reviewed if the freebie was not given out in the first place. But what bloggers choose to do with the opportunities that come their way will be a personal decision and as long as they are transparent about it, people will judge accordingly and decide whether or not to continue reading. It was noted that Celebrity Chef endorsements of the major supermarkets, major brands or food chains would have been the nemesis for chefs years ago but now many are doing it and it’s not seen as such a big deal.
  • Blogs and the print media operate on different dynamics. Blogging provides a flexible format for publishing and a lot more freedom as bloggers choose what they want to write about. Blogs are more personal and provide a different perspective on things, and have the ability to cover a wider range of restaurants including less popular ones, and places far out in the suburbs that restaurant critics may never think of reviewing or get the chance to check out. There is a bit more professionalism associated with the print media. As its their job, restaurant critics may have a better spectrum of the whole scene and be more apt at putting things into context, and they also have to abide by a code of practice but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the standard will always be better. A question raised was - does the label matter? In the end, each format is providing an assessment of a food experience and then disseminating thoughts. Maybe bloggers and restaurant critics are all eggs in the same basket and sometimes you will get bad eggs. The ability of readers of blogs or restaurant reviews to distinguish the good eggs from the bad eggs should not be underestimated because there is an element of trust that gets built up over time between bloggers and their readers, and restaurant critics and their readers. People will seek out sources of information that they trust.
  • David Coomer has often been quoted with unfavourable comments on food bloggers. It was good to hear more about the reasons behind the comments he has made and the impact of reviews on the running of restaurants. My dad is a chef so I can sympathise with where Coomer is coming from. Whilst is it reasonable for customers to expect a certain level of service and quality in the food served, people often complain about their restaurant experience without knowing more about the context within which the restaurant is operating in. Proper staff training is important to good service but is also dependent on who can be hired and it’s a competitive industry often facing staffing shortages. There are also many processes that go into the final dish served and the kitchen can be a chaotic environment to work in. It can be difficult for chefs to watch over everything and make sure that everything is running smoothly. Sometimes restaurants will have a bad night and a dish will turn out less than perfect. Negative reviews of restaurants can be based on just one bad experience and sometimes instead of addressing the issue at that point in time with the restaurant, people will instead go and have a grumble online. Regardless of the situation, there is value in having a feedback mechanism and no one should think that they are above criticism. The issue is the way the feedback is circulated these days and the ability for it to be instantaneous. Blogs, twitter and Urbanspoon often get grouped into the same category. But I think that most blogs are generally a lot more considerate and are aware of the impact that they can have on restaurants. A lot of time goes into maintaining a blog and if a blogger wants to be taken seriously, they know that they have to think carefully about what they write. It cannot be denied that blogs have helped to drive business to restaurants. Twitter and Urbanspoon are a bit of a free for all and it’s very easy for anyone to provide an opinion and vent a grudge. With the addition of features on Urbanspoon like giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to a place which accumulates to an overall percentage rating, restaurants can constantly feel that they are on a realty TV show and at any moment the votes can send them out of the house. But the voting would not be completely representative of what everyone who has dined at the restaurant thinks. I am often surprised when I see restaurants where I have had a fantastic dining experience have a low rating on Urbanspoon. When I read the comments for the restaurant I realize why and see that a lot of people have provided comments on some really petty things. Maybe voting on Urbanspoon needs to be compulsory for everyone who has attended the restaurant for a more democratic outcome?
  • Everyone has a different view on how they like their dining experience to be. Coomer likes to just enjoy a meal and doesn’t understand why people feel the need to photograph everything that they eat and then share it online (does this defeat the purpose of dining?). I think this is a fair call, because I know that all food bloggers can acknowledge that we can be pretty annoying to dine out with sometimes and how much we owe our family and friends for putting up with us, and not eating food and letting it go cold while we photograph it. Similarly, when watching a live gig or traveling, there is a line to be drawn for completely enjoying the experience and spending too much time recording it, which can at times take away from the experience.
  • Food blogging is not a new phenomeon, but I think that the presence and influence of bloggers has increased over the past few years, assisted by platforms like twitter and Facebook. In addition, the general public is becoming much more aware of food with the increase in reality cooking shows and maybe this has lead to everyone thinking that they are an expert on what restaurant quality food should be and wanting to share an opinion. Either way, everyone has a responsibility to be careful about what they say online or in the print media, and even more so now that everything has a digital legacy. One thing that was honed on during the discussions was that people's livelihoods are at stake and a lot of hard work goes into the running of a restaurant, a bad restaurant review in the newspaper or negative blog reviews and comments on Urbanspoon can potentially and has sent restaurants out of business. When a restaurant first opens they are bound to experience teething issues and criticisms of a place early on can be unjustified, throughout the lifetime of a restaurant there can be improvements in the menu, changes in the chef or the style of the restaurant but this will not change what has already been published on them.

Afterwards my friend and I discussed how the influence of blogging and the debate over old versus new media is not unique to the food industry and can be applied to other areas like art, music, politics and fashion. 

On Sunday I made the trip up to the Mundaring Truffle Festival again for the Gentleman’s Long Table Lunch at the Forest Pavilion. The four course meal that we were served was amazing. Every dish was delicious and showcased truffles beautifully. With all the truffles that I had consumed over the weekend, I think that the best truffle dishes are ones that are simple and the use of the truffle is subtle but present. I don’t enjoy a dish as much if I find the presence of the truffle too overpowering. I don’t need to bite into something and be hit with truffle. I want to bite into something and as I savour it in my mouth I think where is that truffle?…oh wait, there it is, as my taste buds start to detect the truffle blossoming through the ingredients in the dish and everything seems to just make sense. Every dish for the long table lunch seemed to do just that, it all made sense.

The first dish was a chicken mousseline with green pea puree, truffle supreme sauce and crispy skin chicken by Nigel Harvey (Voyager Restaurant). I felt like I was eating savoury ice cream with the mousseline and the sauce had a really delicate balance of flavours. 

The second dish was speck-wrapped Onslow King Snapper with soft white polenta and truffle emulsion by Peter Manifis (Incontro Restaurant). This dish was rich and creamy, and I liked the shades of flavour provided by the speck.

The third dish was pork belly, lentils and truffle vinaigrette by Hadleigh Troy (Amuse Restaurant). The pork belly was rolled with some truffle stuffing inside and had been slow cooked for 14 hours so it was wonderfully tender. The lentils were cooked in a smoked stock which complemented the earthiness of the truffles. The pork belly was topped with crumbled crackling, brioche and truffles. 

Throughout the lunch we were entertained by WAAPA graduates Panforte and at one point the truffle song was sung.

 This song is all about loving the truffle. Just imagine a big operatic voice singing “I love the truffle…”

All the truffle dishes at the long table lunch were fantastic but there was a consensus amongst the people sitting around me that the last dish by Alain Fabregues (Loose Box Restaurant) was the best. The dessert of truffle pannacotta, with a salsa of seasonal fruits and truffle infused shiraz reduction tasted as good as it looked. The texture of the panna cotta was luxurious and literally melted in your mouth, and the salsa shiraz reduction complemented the panna cotta really well. 

The meal finished up with a cheese platter provided by European Foods and Loose Box truffle marshmallow.

All the dishes were served with wines supplied by Watershed and a vegetarian menu was also available upon request. All the vegetarian dishes were cooked by Scott O’Sullivan (Red Cabbage Restaurant).

A lot of my friends are vegetarians and one thing that I think is great about the Mundaring Truffle Festival is that it is a food event which I can take my vegetarian friends to and they can have a foodie experience that is equal to mine. I don’t have to feel sorry for what my vegetarians friends are missing out on because they aren’t. The Mundaring Truffle Festival provides many great vegetarian friendly dishes as truffles lend themselves well to being used in risotto, pastas and with potatoes and mushrooms.

Was it worth spending both the Saturday and Sunday at the Mundaring Truffle Festival? Definitely.

Next year I intend on going to another long table lunch and also book myself into some Masterclasses to learn more about how to cook truffles. The program for both days is different and there are a variety of talks and cooking demonstrations scheduled so it’s worth going on both days to take in more of the activities and try more truffle themed dishes. It’s also a really nice drive up to the hills.

 Buying my very first piece of fresh truffle.

This is my truffle haul from the Mundaring Truffle Festival. I think I spent over $200, but it’s a seasonal treat worth spending money on. 

I am very excited about cooking truffles for the first time and will be posting about my truffle cooking endeavours soon.

Here are some of my truffle recipes:


  1. A wonderful wrap up of the festival. I was there for a few hours on Saturday, but could not stay of the talk @3, which is a shame. Some interesting points.

    Part of the appeal of blogs is getting used to to voice and content that is provided by various bloggers. The quality of some of the content, such as this post (also another post of truffles by Mei of Libertine Eats) is so clearly superior to what is offered in the print media and their online editions, I can fully understand why the old media might be concerned.

    Ed (wino sapien)

  2. Thanks Ed. I hope you had a good time at the Truffle Festival.

    The discussion panel was really good and there was much discussed but I've only touched on a few of the points.

    I agree with you that part of the appeal of blogs is the personality that comes across in the posts which make blogs interesting to read.