March 29, 2016

Buried treasure

Just over 15 years ago a trusty Tasmanian truffle dog named Pickles sniffed out the unmistakable perfume of the first Australian-grown black truffle. Today we are the fourth-largest producer of the luxe fungus labelled “black diamonds” because of the price tag it commands.

The seventh frost of a New South Wales southern highlands winter has a special significance for truffle grower Peter Marshall. It’s the signal that the time’s right to begin the annual harvest of the celebrated fungus buried around the roots of his oak and hazelnut trees.

“Frosts are absolutely crucial to the flavour,” says Marshall, a qualified forester who harvested the first crop at his Braidwood truffle farm, or truffiere, seven years ago. “It’s quite uncanny. This year we knew there were a lot of truffles in the paddock but there was no scent; there was a hard frost that night and the next morning you could smell the truffles from one end to the other.”

It’s the start of a frenzy of activity that is the brief and much-anticipated Australian season around the valuable crop of French black truffles that are laboriously collected by hand, each one sniffed out by highly trained dogs, and dug out of the earth.

Marshall is one of a group of Australian producers who, after much hard work and patience, are finding success in the challenging field of cultivating the prized winter delicacy that can fetch around $2,500 a kilogram for top quality. His Terra Preta Truffiere is one of the most productive in Australia, this season producing 300 kilograms of high-quality truffles gathered from just 300 trees. The culinary gems were leapt upon by local chefs as well as exported to Paris, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, where chefs are relishing the chance to use truffles out of the traditional European season. “It may be one of the few industries I’ve ever come across where the demand exceeds supply by many, many times,” says Marshall, who predicts annual production of two tonnes within two years at the truffiere he’s carefully developed and nurtured over 25 years to recreate a natural forest ecosystem similar to an 1890s French forest.

From tentative beginnings in the early 1990s in Tasmania, the Australian truffle industry has grown to become the fourth-largest producer of black truffles – Tuber melanosporum – in the world, after France, Italy and Spain, with a harvest this year of more than eight tonnes. About 75 percent of the haul was exported.

There are around 200 growers in the key regions that have been identified as having the right conditions for production, according to the Australian Truffle Growers Association. Of those growers, however, only around half have harvested truffles and only between 10 and 20 have reached a harvest level considered to be commercial production quantities. It’s not an industry for the impatient; it takes at least five years after the planting of the specially inoculated trees for the fungus to develop into a fully formed truffle, with some growers waiting for 10 years to get a meaningful harvest, if at all.

Export success

About half of Australia’s truffle bounty is grown in Manjimup in Western Australia by The Truffle & Wine Co, which has been so successful in cultivating black truffles it’s regarded as the most productive truffiere in the world.

Founder Alf Salter says this year’s harvest was around 3.5 tonnes of truffles from the company’s 13,000 oak and hazelnut trees, a figure that was a little down on previous years because of some major management work with the trees in the truffiere. And the company has its sights on further growth. “We’re planning some further truffieres this year and again next year, and that will increase our production by about 33 percent,” says Salter.

Salter says marketing is now the company’s focus as it seeks to continue to develop its markets overseas, where around 90 percent of its harvest is sold during the brief truffle season starting in late June. “The pointy end of our business is marketing, as it is for any agricultural product – and it becomes an even more important area of business when you have such a perishable product,” says Salter.

TWC’s truffles are sold in more than 20 countries, with the US at the top of the list. Last year the company established a US-based company headed up by a former Michelin-starred chef as part of its strategy to grow and manage the logistics of supplying a niche luxe product in such a huge market. “Getting truffles from the point of entry, which might be LA or Chicago, to New York or Miami presents some big logistical issues, and the truffle business has traditionally been run by European truffle houses who are pretty tough people,” Salter says. “Having a business there is useful not only in establishing relationships but making sure our products are looked after from the farm to the plate.”

This year also brought some added interest for the Australian industry. While the main focus here is on the black truffle, this season saw the successful harvest for the first time in Australia of the white truffle, Tuber borchii, or bianchetto.

The producer was Peter Stahle – also President of the Australian Truffle Growers Association – who’d been waiting for seven years after inoculating his first trees. He harvested three kilos of the truffles, which were sold directly to restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, and is looking forward to a bigger bounty next season. “I’d be disappointed if I didn’t increase production,” says Stahle. “There are some enthusiastic chefs depending on it.”

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Culinary magic

For Australia’s chefs the development of the Australian truffle industry has created a tantalising chance to use a very special seasonal delicacy on menus that’s also local.

“I’m usually already starting to dream about truffles in autumn when we’re developing our winter menus,” says Alla Wolf-Tasker, the acclaimed chef and restaurateur behind two-hat restaurant Lake House in Victoria’s Daylesford. “I try to incorporate dishes that will be enhanced with some liberal use of truffles if there’s a good-quality harvest. Like all the ingredients available to us just once a year, the seasonal anticipation is wonderful. And nowadays the truffles often come from just down the road and it’s one more sensational local ingredient for us here in Daylesford. There are more truffieres being put in every year.”

As a young chef training in France, Wolf-Tasker fell under the spell of the mysterious and sensual black truffle. “There was such a lot of ritual and mystique around the magic truffle that one couldn’t help but get caught up in it,” she says. “There’s always such a to-do about it when the first truffles arrive at the market.”

Wolf-Tasker, who uses up to a kilogram of truffles a week in a good season, says the key to making the most of them is simple – literally. “The simpler the better,” she says. “In something creamy like an omelette, with pasta, with a risotto, and especially in a sauce with our local wild mushrooms, which are often still being picked at the same time. It’s not about cooking with truffles for any length of time; you add them to the dish, allow the flavour to infuse and the warmth to send out that very special aroma. It’s worth being a little adventurous as well. Something I picked up from Philippe Mouchel is truffle in a warm vinaigrette drizzled over poached fish – we use local Murray cod. It’s sensational.”

But the dish that really gets Lake House guests talking is the truffled triple brie – a warmed wedge of creamy cheese, layered with truffle shavings, atop warm house-made brioche French toast and drizzled with local honey infused with more truffle. “We add a few soused currants for sweetness. The overall texture is creamy-sweet but then there’s that unique umami hit which truffle offers, more as an aroma than flavour. It’s rather special; guests often ask in advance if it’s on the menu.”

Star chef Phil Wood, who heads up the kitchen at Neil Perry’s flagship Sydney restaurant Rockpool, is another passionate Australian truffle fan, using around 12 kilograms of them during the season. He says he first came across Australian truffles while working in the US at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry restaurant. “That’s when I really got exposed to what truffles were like to cook with and fell in love with them,” Wood says. “They use them in a great way, in a generous way, to make sure people are actually experiencing them, not just getting a couple of shavings on the plate and then left wondering what the big deal is.”

Wood oversees Rockpool’s annual truffle dinner that this year took diners through nine courses, including dessert, celebrating the truffle. He says timing – and fat – is everything when cooking with truffles. “With the black truffles, if they’re not added just at the right moment or they’re over-processed, they lose their impact,” he says. “And I find the best way for truffles to express themselves properly is if they’re associated with a fat, particularly butter or cream.

“A wonderful roast chicken is always amazing with truffle, or anything with celeriac. And then you have the classic tagliatelle with parmesan truffle butter – outrageously simple and an incredibly beautiful combination.”

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At the beginning

Duncan Garvey well remembers the day he harvested Australia’s first truffle in June 1999. He says the perfume still lingers in his mind. “When it’s something you’ve been trying to grow for 10 years you don’t forget it,” he says. “I can still smell it in the ground up there. A really good truffle has a wonderful, real sweet smell to it.”

An agronomist, Garvey was one of the key pioneers in the development of the industry when he took on the challenge of trying to grow truffles in Tasmania. He’d been working in mainstream agriculture when he overheard people rapturously talking about truffles one day in Paris. “I thought, ‘This is interesting. Why can’t we grow them?’” says Garvey. “I researched and spent six months wandering around France trying to put it together, and thought, ‘This might be an opportunity.’

“No one had ever grown one in the southern hemisphere. We had to introduce new technology and modify the soil – we were putting on rates of limestone, for example, that no one had ever heard of. Everyone was saying, ‘This can’t happen, you can’t do this.’ But we stuck to it and the good principles of agriculture and we finally got it to work.”

Garvey’s company Perigord Truffles of Tasmania this season harvested 750 kilograms of truffles, and such is the developing local appetite for truffles that the bulk of the bounty was snapped up by home cooks, who are embracing the opportunity to have the treasures delivered to their kitchens within 24 hours of ordering.

“We sold around half a tonne online,” says Garvey. “People are ordering them and enjoying them – some every second week during the season. They’re having fun with them.”

Garvey’s vision for the Australian truffle industry is one that’s focused on building a solid reputation for quality and high standards, rather than just quantity.

And he urges consumers to take care when choosing their “black diamonds”, to ensure they get the true truffle experience that’s had gastronomes throughout history swooning. “To enjoy a good truffle is an amazing thing,” he says. “It fills the room with perfume if they’ve been harvested at the right time and grown in the right conditions. They should feel firm and solid, with that strong perfume. Put your nose in and just go, ‘Wow’.”

This article was first published in Private Word magazine (Summer 2015). Private Word is also available in an App for Android and iTunes users.

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