My husband assumes the position. On hands and knees, eyes and snout close to the ground, bottom high in the air. A small stick to scratch away the top layer of rich soil - the ‘brulee’, it’s called, because it resembles the well-torched, caramelised sugar of a crème brulee – and he yelps with excitement. It’s his first truffle, and now his fingers are deep in the earth, making space around this rare and wonderful funghi, and easing it out of its snug home.
At Wallingford Homestead, the enormous, sprawling single-story timber lodge that was once the property of the equally large Ormond family, truffles are bound to make an appearance at your evening meal. And at breakfast too.
Acclaimed Sydney chef Chris Stockdale runs the kitchen, ably assisted by wife Jeanette, French waiter-turned-porter-turned-kitchenhand Laurent, and the weekend we visit, Chris’ beautiful mum Monica. Working off a poured concrete benchtop he made himself “after watching a few how-to videos online”, Chris creates exquisite food rivalling anything you’ll sample elsewhere in the country. We’re fed leek and potato vichyssoise with a hint of truffle, terakihi ceviche on a fresh home-made corn tostada, tuna carpaccio (my son, watching the goings-on in the kitchen, reports back to us that we’ll soon be eating ‘slapped fish’), truffle risotto, delicious savoy cabbage rich with parmesan and balsamic, duck confit with plums, a dessert of sticky chocolate tart with fresh figs and tonka bean icecream… the menu is seriously outstanding.
And at breakfast, the several small courses theme begins all over again with granola cups and roasted pear, eggs from the chooks that roam the garden, homemade sourdough with quince jam from the trees outside, and pureed potato and chard with – yeah – fresh grated truffle.
What led the Stockdales to relinquish the glamour of Double Bay and trade it for the remote, rugged landscape of Wallingford – where neighbours are scarce, the nearest provincial city, Hastings, is an hour away and the cosmopolitan capital, Wellington, is a hilly, 3.5 hour hike? “It was me who wanted to come,” admits Jeanette – although it’s Chris who is the Kiwi of the two. Chris confides he was leaning towards Tasmania, but when the couple spotted an opportunity to manage the lodge, which passed into new ownership in 2017, they hopped on a plane and came for a look.
He’s only a few months in to his tenure, but already sees tremendous potential in developing Wallingford into a destination experience for local and international travellers who enjoy excellent food, relaxed surrounds, and an absence of cellphone reception. He’s seen what happened near Hobart, at The Agrarian Kitchen, which catapulted a small undiscovered rural community into guide books and grew a community around it based on the restaurant’s need for cheese, meat, fish and produce.
They’re sorted for truffles.