Black harvest: a taste for truffles

RoyalAuto magazine

Victoria’s black truffle trade is booming, but it takes teamwork to sniff out these earth-bound morsels.  

Story: Sofia Levin. Photos: Eamon Gallagher.


Thomas isn’t like other dogs. When Jenny McAuley met him in Tasmania he was quieter than the other truffle hunters, all trained to uncover black gold beneath cool soil. She was drawn to the English springer spaniel with his white snout and empathetic eyes. When she dropped Thomas back at his enclosure after a trip to the beach, he threw himself against the door until it burst open, and chased after his new business partner. 

The two have been working together for three years at Red Hill Truffles on the Mornington Peninsula. Inspired by a trip to Tuscany, Jenny planted the first of her 2700 trees in 2005. Five years later, she had her first harvest – a single truffle – and last season was the first time she came close to breaking even. “You don’t really get a full crop until 10 to 12 years so you have to be very patient,” she says. 

Growing truffles is a long process: most growers buy hazelnut or oak trees inoculated with the French black truffle from certified growers; the soil must be prepared with lime to achieve a pH of 8; an irrigation system needs to be installed and the trees must be planted and pruned.  

‘It’s not a money tree like many people think it is.’

Red Hill Truffles’ Jenny McAuley and Thomas unearth truffles from her Mornington Peninsula property.

Truffle hunting dogs are the missing link at harvest time. Thomas is trained to sniff out the characteristic aroma and drop to the ground, place a speckled white paw either side of the spot where the truffle hides beneath the earth, then tap his nose on the sweet spot. Jenny digs it up, rewards Thomas with a treat and, within hours, delivers fresh truffles to local restaurants. During the 12-week season, which runs from June until late August, Jenny harvests around a kilogram at a time. 

Like Jenny, Andres Haas, secretary of the Australian Truffle Growers Association, who runs Black Cat Truffles with his wife Lynette, fell in love with truffles overseas. The pair planted 1000 oak trees 20 kilometres north-east of Ballarat in 2007, following a family trip to France. Itching to get away from the city, they became truffle farmers.   

“We call ourselves long-term spontaneous,” says Andres, who was an IT manager until last year. “It’s a tree-change thing … It’s not a money tree like many people think it is. We are heavily into agritourism – we have truffle hunts and go to markets, and have the bed and breakfast. People read about truffles being sold for $2500, $3000 a kilogram, but the reality is most truffles get sold wholesale for drastically less than that.” 

Although Andres enjoys truffles at home, in simple dishes such as cheese toasties, Black Cat Truffles also supplies truffle to Cape restaurant at RACV’s Cape Schanck Resort and Andres admires executive chef Josh Pelham’s creativity, including a decadent pasta dish of risoni cooked in a rich wild mushroom stock, finished with butter, grated parmesan cheese, parmesan foam, parsley and local black truffle shaved at the table. 


But truffles shouldn’t be limited to posh plates. Nigel Wood, founder of Truffle Melbourne, runs events designed to demystify the fancy fungus. He has been involved in the industry for around 20 years and says a little of our black winter Perigord truffles – which retail at $2.50 per gram – goes a long way. 

‘Three to five grams of truffle per person in a course will make a dish magic.’

“For many years the industry has been saying it’s the most expensive ingredient in the world and it’s not,” says Nigel. “Three to five grams of truffle per person in a course will make a dish magic. The expense is the same as a bottle or two of wine.” 

Nigel estimates that there are around 45 truffle farmers in Victoria, with producers in the Yarra Valley, Gippsland, central Victoria and on the Mornington Peninsula. A farm of 20,000 trees is being planted near Flowerdale, with the intention to export to China, Nigel says.   

Australian truffles are exported to more than 30 countries, including Europe in its off-season. Business is booming. The Australian Truffle Growers Association estimates that Australia will be producing 20,000 kilograms of truffles by 2020.  

It’s little wonder that Jenny is about to enlist the help of a second English springer spaniel. With truffle dogs costing $12,000 each, Jenny’s training this one herself – but she’ll always have a soft spot for Thomas.


Five ways with truffle

Eggs
Wrap a truffle in kitchen paper and place alongside eggs in a sealed, refrigerated container – the porous shells will absorb the aroma. Scramble infused eggs and finish with shaved truffle.  

Soup  
Add grated truffle to a starchy winter soup like potato or celeriac towards the end of the cooking process. 

Roast chook  
Up the ante on your roast by adding grated black truffle to your stuffing and sliding thin slivers of truffle under the chicken skin before roasting.  

Truffle butter  
Place room-temperature butter on a sheet of plastic wrap and push grated truffle into it with the back of a fork. Wrap into a log and freeze, slicing as required (try it on steak).  

Drink  
Add a couple of teaspoons of grated truffle to quality vodka or gin and leave to infuse. 

For more truffle tips and events visit trufflemelbourne.com, which runs until 2 September.