Here we go a-truffling

When I booked onto a truffle hunt with my dog Bertie, I pictured him scampering around in the orchard and sniffing out a mature Tuber Melanosporum aka a Perigord Black Truffle. That’s because Field Spaniels – Bertie is half Field and half Cocker Spaniel – are being bred specifically for the truffle industry. Field Spaniels are renowned for their hunting skills and exceptional noses. When Bertie was a puppy and we attended puppy pre-school at the vets, he quickly located where the treats were. While the other dogs wriggled around on people’s knees, Bertie maintained a hypervigilant eye and nose on the prize.  His olfactory system never sleeps – even a short trip around the block will usually yield an edible find. He once shot off across the beach­ – leaving me panicked that he would run onto the road – hot on the scent of a sausage sizzle hosted by a party of Rotarians. He would have made an excellent sniffer dog. In fact, he could have excelled in many different nose-based careers.

As it is, he is a much-loved and over-indulged pet. Which is why we booked onto a Truffle Hunt organised by a company called Gourmet Pawprints offering ‘pawfect’ food and wine experiences for people who like to take their dogs along for the ride. As befits a canine-centric business, the dogs are guaranteed a window seat on ‘Bella the Bus’ (Kerry, the owner of Gourmet Pawprints, not only runs the business but also drives the bus!) and are greeted with a goody bag of treats. Bert sat across from Penny, a skittish but adorable Dalmatian (one of two on the trip), and Iggy, a well-behaved black lab. At one point, Penny barked which lead to a Mexican wave of barks across the bus, reminding me of a classic read from my childhood, The Starlight Barking by Dodie Smith.

I once dreamt that Bertie accompanied me on a trip back to Britain. In my dream there were sofa beds – you know the ones with the pull-out metal frame – and the dogs slept underneath.  Wishful thinking on both accounts; you’d only find a sofa-sized bed in First Class (dream on Charlotte) and from a cost and quarantine perspective, taking Bertie on holiday to Britain would be totally impractical. I do love to imagine him, however, running across babbling brooks and green fields criss-crossed by dry stone walls in somewhere like Derbyshire (where I was born) or Yorkshire.  But travelling up to Daylesford by bus – Bertie kindly let me share his double seat on the way back – on a Wuthering Heights-type wet and wintry day came a close second.

Our destination was Black Cat Truffles just outside Creswick, and we were greeted with oozingly rich truffle-infused d’affinois cheese and a glass of sparkling wine – just an hour earlier we had had chocolate brownies and coffee in Ballan! We learnt that truffles are the edible fruiting bodies of fungi that grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of host trees such as hazlenut and oak, most typically in low nutrient soils with a high pH level. At Black Cat the orchard is planted with French and English Oaks and the truffle dog is a trained Labrador named Ella. She had already sniffed out where the mature truffles were located, and the owners Andres and Lynette had marked the trees with a ribbon.

Thankfully the rain let up and ushered in a brief sunny spell just long enough for us to get up close and personal with the truffles. We were invited to kneel and sniff the soil before digging up a few spectacular specimens; mine was the size of a cauliflower and would have commanded a price of about $1000 on the market.  It’s hard to capture the distinctive aroma of a truffle in words; it’s strong, woody, earthy, pungent, heady and sticky sweet.

Needless to say, none of the dogs got a look-in when it came to walking around the truffière. The environment in the orchard needs to be carefully controlled and protected – we had to dip our boots in disinfectant. Instead the dogs got their own special treasure hunt in an adjacent paddock and had fun unearthing treats.

After sampling and/or buying truffle butter, truffle salt and truffle honey in the shop, it was time to move on for lunch at the Farmer’s Arms in Creswick. The entire menu – bar the wine – was truffle-infused from the charcuterie platter to the main course of barramundi or beef cheek. But it was the honey truffle panna cotta with a berry coulis that stole the show. The sweetness of the honey and the earthiness of the truffle shavings (spot the black dots in the photo) were perfect foils for the cooked cream.

While we had been feasting, the dogs were treated to massages and edible treats on the bus. With the dogs relaxed after their pampering session, and the humans sated and soporific after rich food and fine wine, there was much dozing on the way home. That’s what’s so enjoyable about a tour; it’s all done for you and you can sit back and let the day unfold – no map-reading, thinking or organising needed. Pawfect indeed.

Never a dull moment

It’s been a long time between blogs but here I am again. There’s a lot happening in my world – from a potential new job to Airbnb visitors (the first since Easter), getting my shower fixed, my car serviced, my teeth filled, quite a bit of work and deadlines, deadlines, deadlines (luckily I am a big forward planner) as well as lots of family stuff and overseas phone calls. My father’s health is not so good but, on a brighter note, my 16-year-old Melbourne-based niece is somewhere – beyond the reach of phones and social media (sounds blissful to me!) – in deepest and darkest Peru doing a World Expedition Challenge, one of my London-based nieces is preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago with her boyfriend, a friend of mine has just been on a food odyssey to Hong Kong and Vietnam, another is doing the whole massage, cocktails on the beach and party thing in Bali, while my friend Simon is wandering around Europe. Everyone is on the move in one way or another!

Apart from changing jobs I’ve been aiming to keep myself moving by making enough time for exercise – it’s that whole work/life balance thing. Mind you, some of us have it relatively easy compared to the work culture in other countries. My Singaporean guest, an accountant, tells me she regularly works from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Yikes! I find it essential to make time for both exercise and free-fall soul-nourishing time where life just is without the phone beeping, the chit chat, the dashing off to cafes for catch-ups and social interaction. Time to move and time to just be, and sometimes a bit of both.

To that end Saturday mornings are now sacrosanct for a bit of cardio activity. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues I don’t go to the gym or have a personal trainer but I am a big believer in the outdoor gym. Bertie and I take off to Hampton Beach in good time on Saturdays. There are plenty of steps and slopes leading down to the beach so we intersperse jogging and walking with running up and down the slopes. Bertie loves it and scrabbles up the banks like the true working dog he is. I might not go as fast as him but I do get my heart pumping and it feels good, clearing out any stagnant energy from the week.

Then this week I bought a new bike –well, not exactly new, you know me… I found it in the Op Shop at work. I do already have a bike and I haven’t sat on it for about five years so it’s looking pretty neglected. But the difference is that this pre-loved bike is a classic ‘sit-up and beg’ model – so no back-ache-inducing forward tilt – and comes complete with a wicker basket on the front. All very Brideshead Revisited. Funnily enough, before I came to Australia I visualised myself riding along the beach path on just such a bike. I do believe that we can visualise certain things into being.

If the new job doesn't come off...

If the new job doesn’t come off…

Once I’d bought the (bargain) bike, the luck continued. I texted my dog-walking friend who has a Subaru Outback on the off-chance that he and his car might be in St. Kilda sometime soon. Nick is a glass artist and it turns out he works in a studio just around the corner every Wednesday. Bingo! So me and the new bike popped round at lunchtime and were able to watch him glass-blowing and sculpting. I was amazed at how malleable the glass becomes at high temperatures – Nick was making a giant acorn and welding on the stalk. I was in awe at the dexterity with which he worked. What a skill!

Adding the stalk to the acorn

Adding the stalk to the acorn

Apples and acorns and foil-wrapped potatoes for lunch

Apples and acorns and foil-wrapped potatoes for lunch

With the bike delivery scheduled for Friday, Bertie and I skipped off between work and a bit more work to the beach – not for cardio (hardly a goer in Wednesday work clothes and wellies) but for a gentle walk as the last rays of afternoon sun swept across the sand. As an added bonus, we met a pure bred Field Spaniel (Bertie is half field spaniel/half cocker) called Grace. We compared notes about our dogs’ behaviours and tendencies. We agreed that as working dogs, our spaniels need plenty of exercise – they need a job to do – and that they are hugely greedy and prone to pinching food off the kitchen bench. But we adore them.


Bertie is the most delightful boy but he is quite a handful. If he gets onto the scent of something or is scared or curious he’s off like a shot and barks up a storm. We were in the country a few weekends ago and got up early to go out walking in the forest. It was rather magical – a bit misty with rain dripping off leaves, lichen and moss clinging to ancient tangled branches with no sound other than the birds and the occasional rustling in the undergrowth. Until a wallaby appeared from nowhere and Bertie took off in pursuit. It ended in a stalemate with the wallaby looking bemused on the far side of a gully as Bertie barked furiously! He’s scared of ironing boards, skateboarders, wheelie bins and now wallabies. Oh and he barks at the TV if there’s a wildlife documentary featuring birds.


Nature programs aside, we’re both in need of a bit of down time so tonight it’ll be a case of SIT, DROP AND STAY… in front of the TV.

Frost with parrots

English people are renowned for obsessing about the weather (well, if that’s true it’s because they get their fair share of miserable Northern European grey skies, rain and chill) but, from my observations, we’re all pretty tuned into meteorology especially now we can access the forecast via our Smart phones.

Melbourne’s winter this year has thrown all sorts at us and, as an all-weather dog walker (try telling Bertie it’s pelting with rain and blowing a gale and we need to wait till it’s cleared), I’ve been out in some pretty inclement conditions. That’s where my UK training comes in handy: you simply layer up against the cold, don wellies, mac, hat, gloves and scarf and get on with it. Forget the whinging Pom thing, we’re remarkably resilient when it comes to weather.

We’ve had one of the coldest winters for many years with snow blanketing many places around Victoria that are normally untouched by such extremes. On Monday morning I was amazed to see a sprinkling of frost in the park when I took Bertie for a walk. I found it rather magical and it reminded me of Blightly, apart from the parrots screeching overhead, that is.

In the Bleak Mid Winter, Frosty Wind Made Moan...

In the Bleak Mid Winter, Frosty Wind Made Moan…

But on Sunday, the wind and rain held off and we enjoyed the most glorious winter sunshine. It was as if the weather Gods had called a truce and bathed sky and land in gentleness. I took Bertie on our favourite walk along the coastal path from Hampton Beach beyond Sandringham and towards Half Moon Bay. And what a wonderfully nurturing experience it was. As we descended the steps to the dog beach at Hampton, we passed a man chopping back some branches that had blown onto the path. He also had an orange ukulele with him and said he often came down to the beach to practise. Sadly I missed his practice but I did hear a Chinese woman singing a bit further along. She was sitting meditatively on a rock oblivious to passers-by and walkers. How I admired her insouciance! Then I met a South African couple walking Gorgeous, their Staffy. What a wonderful name for a dog. Everyone seemed to be smiling, even the dogs.

Looking towards Melbourne

Looking towards Melbourne

Looking towards Half Moon Bay

Looking towards Half Moon Bay

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For once I was not caught up in my head and felt really alive to what was going on around me: the calling of gulls; the gentle lapping of waves; the salty briny smell of the water; and the busy high notes of the fairy wrens as they flitted about. It was a day to breathe in, to feel the expansiveness and to be thankful.

Half Field Spaniel, Bertie loves being in the grass

Half Field Spaniel, Bertie loves being in the grass

We walked on and on, clambering up and over rocks, up and down grassy slopes, onto the path then back onto the beach for a bit of ball throwing and paddling. After a couple of hours, we stopped off at my favourite cafe, the Sandy Beach Kiosk by the Sandringham Yacht Club. It’s cosy, casual, scruffy, wonderfully unpretentious, serves hearty food and is dog-friendly. Over a cup of English breakfast (what else?!), I caught up with some other spaniel owners and their little girl, read sections of the Sunday papers and generally put the world to rights. A perfect Sunday morning.

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