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Embrace the winter solstice with a pagan feast, midnight party or a hunt for black gold.
A few years ago, Australian winter didn't have a lot going for it unless you liked snow and had the (ridiculous) money to stick yourself in it. All of a sudden our darkest, chilliest days of the year have become the most hotly anticipated.
Could Hobart's irreverent winter festival Dark Mofo be solely responsible? Probably not. But I bet it has been dominating your Instagram feed and you're gagging to go next year. One year ago I pitched up in the middle of the festival staged by David Walsh's wacky museum MONA with no idea what to expect except for "awesome weirdness" and "a wild feast".
By the end of the weekend, I had walked through fire, been serenaded by a helicopter, swum in warm bull's blood and offal as a performer in Hermann Nitsch's controversial Action 150 (use of a bull's carcass drew heavy criticism from the vegan community) and nearly frozen my extremities off even without participating in the icy nude solstice swim. The winter feast splayed beasts over primal barbecues, served them in a whisky and oyster stuffed-hall that looked like the club Fangtasia from vampire show True Blood.
Yep, chilly old Hobart was hot. So hot that when pre-sale tickets were released this year, thousands were waiting to join the digital queue. If you are going for the big finale this weekend, good choice. Pack some thermals, brace yourself and note our hot tips. If not, don't panic. Australia's really learnt to love the dark. Solstice parties, whisky jams, black wines, bonfires and truffle hunts are here to help you through the darkest hours.
Everywhere from Apollo Bay to Bowral is getting a little pagan with food, art and music festivals featuring a lot of beer, whisky and beasts roasted over coals. Keen? Here's our full list of places to party in a puffer jacket. But the big-ticket item right now is Dark Mofo.
For anyone heading south this weekend you've got a good food time coming at you. Along with the main Winter Feast at Princes Wharf 1 where local producers push wares and guest chefs such as Monique Fiso of Hiakai will be coming in hot to do a traditional in-ground hangi, visiting chefs and bartenders are descending to party alongside the festival.
Local whisky distillery hero Sullivans Cove is taking over Ettie's Piano Bar (100 Elizabeth Street, Hobart) until 2am over the weekend. On Thursday and Friday from 9pm-2am Aloft (Pier One, Brooke Street) will revive last year's supper club and hand the kitchen to Nick Stanton and team from Melbourne's Ramblr, where they'll be slinging dark negronis and hot bug rolls.
Do you miss Luke Burgess of the late, great Garagistes? The now roaming chef is doing a little Japanese, cooking pork tonkatsu with dark miso at the Winter Feast from June 21-24.
Last year's almighty Sunday session, Bottle Tops, a wine party spread over two levels of Franklin (30 Argyle Street), is returning on June 24 from 1pm with snacks from Analiese Gregory and Africola's Duncan Welgemoed. From 8.30 that night, tiny mighty Italian Fico (151A Macquarie Street) is being taken over by Sydney's That's Amore and wine terror Giorgio de Maria will likely play disco too loud while chef Pasi Petanen joins the kitchen team to make midnight pasta.
On Monday, June 25, the Summertown Aristologist will up sticks from the Adelaide Hills and bring their Basket Ranges wines, pizza and good times to Dier Makr (123 Collins Street) for a walk-in-only final supper.
Pull on your gumboots and whistle a well-trained dog. It's winter and it's time to hunt truffles.
The growth of Australia's truffle industry, combined with the increasing popularity of farm-gate tourism, means there have never been more opportunities to join a hunt for the heady black diamonds.
When grower Nigel Wood founded the Truffle Melbourne festival in 2014, the farmers he worked with would host their public truffle hunts with minimum frills – perhaps a marquee erected in the cold at best. "Now the farmers we're working with have dedicated tasting rooms and most hunts involve a warm truffle soup on arrival," says Wood. "Growers will talk about the history of the farm before heading out with their dogs to find new-season truffles among the trees."
Julia Brown is the event manager of Canberra Truffle Festival, now in its 10th year. She says more truffle growers in the Canberra region are upping their hunting game, too, by offering cooking classes and country-style lunches as a value-add.
"Some have gone even further to provide cottage accommodation so you can have a full weekend experience," she says. "You can go on a hunt with mates and come back to the cottage to cook a truffle dinner with that day's bounty."
Note that you will still have to buy any truffles found on the hunt if you want to cook with them. Australia might have a lot more truffles than 10 years ago but the tubers still command a high price. Truffles are hard little things to grow because they only like specific trees and soil conditions and in Australia that usually means evergreen oaks and hazelnut trees grown under European-style forest conditions. You also need a smart dog to find them. (Dogs have largely replaced pigs to sniff out the fragrant fungi as pigs don't always like to part with their unearthed treasure.)
"I've seen everything from a dachshund to a German shepherd trained to find truffles," says Wood. "However, a successful truffle dog needs the right attitude. A willingness to work for three to four hours sniffing up and down rows of trees. You also need a dog that will only find the right truffles, the ripe ones."
Winter truffle-hunting highlights around Australia
Truffle hunt and cooking class at Red Hill Truffles, Red Hill
Join Jenny McAuley and her springer spaniel Thomas at the first farm to produce truffles on the Mornington Peninsula. French chef Romuald Oudeyer will show you how to make the most out of any truffles you take home. July 1. Tickets $265 from trufflemelbourne.com.
See Truffle Melbourne for information on more hunt packages from Red Hill Truffles, Black Cat Truffles, Truffle Treasures and Wongarra Farm.
NSW AND ACT
Black tie and gumboot truffle hunt and dinner at Borrodell Vineyard, Orange
An afternoon of truffles and tuxedos followed by a five-course truffle dinner and prize for the best gumboots. June 30. Tickets $285 from borrodell.com.au.
L'Air Du Wombat Truffles, Turalla Truffles, Tarago Truffles, Blue Frog Truffles and Macenmist Black Truffles & Wines will also host truffle hunts during the Canberra Truffle Festival.
Truffle hunting with David Coomer
One of Western Australia's best-known chefs will take you on a stroll through his trufferie in Manjimup, the heartland of Australian truffles, just over three hours' drive from Perth. The hunt is part of Truffle Kerfuffle, a weekend-long festival of the heady fungi. June 22-24. Tickets $90 from trufflekerfuffle.com.au.