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Australian Truffles: From Plantation to Plate

Western Australia’s cultivated black truffles are mushrooming in restaurant menus across the world.

It’s a sleepy farming town of 5,000, a four-hour drive south of Perth, Australia.

Here, retired ladies knit in cafes, children pick ripe oranges off their backyard trees and earnest farmers smile with the gentle warmth of the morning sun. This is Manjimup.

You might not have heard of the place – but you should know it. For more than just home to pastoral scenes of rolling hills, lush green vineyards, apple orchards and groves tinted orange with ripening persimmons, this is where culinary black gold – the prized perigord truffle (Tuber melanosporum) – is farmed.

Once the sole preserve of European harvesters, the coveted subterranean mushroom is now being grown commercially by farmers in Australia, using spores imported from France.

This has shot the humble hamlet into the glamorous world of luxury food-producing regions. Think along the ranks of Russia for its caviar, Japan for its endangered bluefin tuna and, of course, the traditional truffle-growing provinces in France and Italy.

Demand for these crown jewels of the culinary world far outstrips supply. Today, France produces only 20,000kg, down from over a million kg in 1900 – the decline due in part to environmental destruction. This has caused prices to shoot through the roof.

Furthermore, diners in glitzy international restaurants, whose large appetites are rivalled only by even larger bank accounts, seem to have an insatiable
craving for its earthy, musky scent.

In raw form, one kilogram of black truffles can ring up nearly $3,000 at the cash tills – that’s if they’re even available.

In Europe, Perigord truffles are in season only in winter around December to March. And that’s where regions like Manjimup have an edge – the Australian seasonal calendar is the reverse of that of the northern hemisphere.

Their truffles come into season from June to late August – and the prospect of using these tubers in summer menus are an exciting proposition for chefs the world over.

But how did such an exotic ingredient end up in the remote locations of Australia? Who are the valorous people who spearheaded such a bold venture? And most importantly, can these truffles measure up to the ones grown on European terroir?

Led By The Nose
“Lola, where’s the truffle?” asks Adrian Mielke, a truffle hunter with the Truffle & Wine Company, as we snake through rows of hazelnut and oak trees one chilly June morning. The four-year-old golden labrador blinks up at Mielke, sniffs the ground and bounds off into action, its feet crunching on the fallen leaves and acorns.

The Truffle & Wine Company is the largest producing farm outside of Europe, turning out 5,000kg of truffles last year alone. This is projected to increase annually and Lola, as one of the estate’s four truffle dogs, is tasked to find them. One at a time.

“It takes two to three weeks of training, twice to three times a day before they get tuned in to the smell,” explains Mielke as we walk behind Lola. “But to get a proper truffle dog, one that does not scratch or bite the truffles, takes years.”

Training starts by holding a frozen truffle in one hand and a treat in the other. “Eventually, she worked out that if she goes to the truffle, she gets the treat. Then I started playing games where I hid it under leaves or wood and burying it for her to find.” He adds with a laugh: “She’s very good at showing me fox poo, though.”

At that moment, Lola paws at a spot. We dart to her and stoop excitedly next to where the canine is digging. A few scrapes into the dirt unearths the crown of a hard object. A hush falls over the group. There it lies, hugged by the earth like an obsidian gemstone – round as an apple and black as night. A gentle wiggle and a tug and out it pops. The light scent of earthy muskiness fills the air. The Perigord truffle.

Toil and Truffle
Suffice to say, it would not have been found without a truffle dog – but that’s just the tip of the cultivation iceberg. Science has been a crucial factor in the region’s success. The person driving it forward is mycologist Dr Nicholas Malajczuk, a scientist who specialises in fungi.

In 1997, he resigned from his post at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and cajoled 23 others into investing in a truffle farm in Manjimup. They planted 13,000 oak and hazelnut trees – the varieties whose roots truffles are known to grow on. Thus, the Truffle & Wine Company was born.

“It was a lot of frustration in the early days,” says Dr Malajczuk. “We invested millions into this farm not knowing if it would come to fruit.”

Until it did.

“July 28, 2003, 3.30pm. That was the (moment marking the) first truffle I found, after five years of waiting,” he reminisces. “I’ll always remember that moment.” It had been a long, frustrating wait with millions of dollars on the line. Had the truffle experiment been unsuccessful, all they would’ve had to show for it would be hazelnuts.

As a mycologist though, Dr Malajczuk knew that the region’s environment is similar to the perigord truffle’s native conditions. Situated in the southwest of Australia where the climate resembles that in the Mediterranean, Manjimup boasts summers averaging 24 deg C – which allow the truffles to grow rapidly – and wet winters with a low of 5 deg C that help to bring on maturity. Unlike in France, the region does not experience ground frost which reduces yields, but the soil required an addition of nutrients like potassium and other organic matter for optimal growth.

But, unlike regular produce, it is not just the soil and climate that truffles depend on. Their growth is also dependent on the host tree. “If your tree has grown well, the fungus will grow well too,” he says. “The truffle absorbs organic nutrients from the soil to feed the tree. In return, the tree provides it with sugars and carbohydrates it produces through photosynthesis.”

Tapping on scientific knowledge has given the region’s farmers an edge over those who harvest wild growth. “In Europe, most of the truffles are still found in the native forests,” explains Dr Malajczuk. “Even in trufferies, they treat them as native so they don’t do any additions.”

This “addition” he refers to comes in the form of Truffle Boost, a liquid formula he made, containing organic elements that supply nutrients to both the truffle and host tree. The result: increased yields and bigger truffles.

“The wild ones tend to be smaller, since they don’t have this nutrition.”

Indeed, bulbous monsters exceeding a kilogram have been unearthed in previous seasons. In 2005, the Truffle & Wine Company found its biggest prize yet, weighing 1kg and 19g. That’s just 281g shy of the French world record at 1.3kg.

In comparison, the average tuber is about the size of a golf ball and measures just 50g.But is there a difference between perigord truffles from Europe and the ones from down south?

First-class Fungi
“It’s exactly the same as the ones we get from Italy or France,” declares Melbournian celebrity chef Guy Grossi, a regular face on Australia TV, who has nine restaurants under his belt. “They have the same texture and pungency. You can smell it. It’s an intense aroma. It’s in the colour. The marbling. It’s
just amazing.”

Getting a local chef to support local produce is one thing. Endorsements from farther afield are another – 11,000km away, to be exact.

“I fell in love with it immediately the first time I tried it,” enthuses three-Michelin-star chef Curtis Duffy from Chicago. “The quality and the flavour profile are much better than those of the European truffle. It’s at the right stage of ripeness that you can get only because the farms here can ship them in less than 48 hours after being dug up.” Comparing them to European truffles, which can take as long as a week to reach restaurants around the world, he says: “Receiving them within two days (of harvesting) means you get a fresher product.”

The two acclaimed chefs have been using truffles from the region for years, and were in Manjimup to lend support for the Truffle Kerfuffle festival held every June – an event to showcase the region’s truffles, wines and produce. Duffy and Grossi are not the only fans either. Since successful cultivation, Manjimup black truffles have been exported to Tokyo, Hong Kong, the US and even its traditional homes in Europe, taking advantage of its different season.

Closer to home, food suppliers Indoguna, Culina and Gourmet Partner have been bringing them in since 2012. They supply restaurants as varied as award-winning Jaan to the modern Italian Gaia Ristorante and newcomer Corner House. “The quality is very close to (that of) some of the really top-notch truffles from Perigord itself,” says Jaan’s chef de cuisine, Julien Royer.

Then there’s the issue of errant European truffle hunters slipping in Chinese truffles (Tuber indicum) to pass them off as their coveted perigord cousins. These grow in the region from China to the Himalayan hills and retail for just $50 per kg.

“They’re horrible. There is no smell, no taste. Nothing,” says Royer. Yet, about 28 tonnes of Chinese truffles are imported into France each year – legally.

The European situation took another turn for the worse when, in 2008, truffle expert Dr Claude Murat found the Tuber indicum strain growing on an Italian farm, sparking fears that the invasive species is growing wild.

“It’s very difficult to know the origin of your truffle,” says Royer. “People will tell you stories of its origin – and there’s a lot of naughty business in the truffle trade. As a chef, you must let the quality of the product speak for itself.”

Honest-to-Goodness
That naughtiness is absent in Manjimup. “They’re banned from Australia,” asserts Al Blakers, a truffle farmer from Manjimup Truffles, on the Chinese imports. This makes the possibility of passing off lower-grade fungi close to zero, boosting buyer confidence.

The honesty and humility that surrounds the black-truffle trade in Manjimup are infectious. Nowhere is this seen more than at Truffle Kerfuffle. Here, farmers and store keepers from the Southern Forests region comprising surrounding towns Pemberton, Northcliffe and Walpole come together to sell jams, essential oils and fresh produce.

Then there’s the food – everything from pasta to roast potatoes and even popcorn are laden with generous shavings of truffles.

And that’s the key to the region’s growing success. This exotic ingredient, regarded as the exclusive preserve of the urban wealthy, is shared and accessible to all in mirthful abundance.

At the Truffle Kerfuffle’s dinners, potato farmers rub shoulders with CEOs of regional companies. Politicians share the table with cattle ranchers, and acclaimed chefs raise their glasses in honour of the farmers who make it all possible.

There are no stories of scheming truffle hunters or of prized truffle dogs being poisoned by rival farmers. Instead, it’s a community of people coming together to share an honest meal.

Be it chopped, blitzed or shaved, these exclusively priced tubers, ironically, have mass appeal. It’s easy to see that all present at the Truffle Kerfuffle – from rough-and-tumble farmers to smart-suited executives – are united in their passion for this tuber.

Little wonder then, that they’re hailed as the crown jewels of the culinary world.