Australia is the dark horse of the global food community’s hunt for truffles, which has been described as the tastiest game of hide and seek around, writes Sophie Hull.
Ted knew the truffle was something special when we saw it peeping out of the soil. It was too big for his own scales, so he had to take it to the post office to be weighed. And there is was: 1.172kg of pristine Black Perigord truffle, blowing the previous Australian record of 1.084kg out of the water, and not too far off the world record for this highly prized variety, a 1.31kg beauty found in France in 2012.
When Ted and Barbara Smith retired from the business world, they wanted to make use of their land in the agricultural area of Robertson in New South Wales, around 140 kilometers from Sydney. They researched wasabi, saffron and chestnuts before being drawn to truffles.“I had heard of truffles but like most people I had never seen them or tasted them,” says Ted. “I read about the history, the mythology, the romance that comes with them. I looked at the conditions we needed to grow them: hot summers, cold winters, frosts, good rainfall and good soil. We have all these things.”
So in 2007, they dosed up their soil with pulverised limestone and bought and planted two kinds of oak seedlings (Quercus ilex and Quercus robur), inoculated with truffle spores from Tasmania (tuber melanosporum), knowing that it was a risky business. There are over 160 commercial truffle growers in Australia and only an estimated 10 per cent are producing commercially. But four years and four months later, they found their first truffle and Yelverton Truffles was born.“Trying to speculate on what the ideal conditions are is very difficult. There are a lot of unknowns in this business. You could find truffles after three years to 12 years, or never. A lot of people don’t find them at all… Our first truffle created great excitement.”
The Smiths live on a 75-acre property, in a large brick country-style house painted pink with a manicured garden surrounded by fields and gum trees. They display wonderful hospitality: I’m welcomed with a hug and presented with a lunch of potato and leek soup with freshly shaved truffle and still-warm homemade bread with truffle butter.
When we walk across a field to visit their truffiere, we watch out for wombat holes and snakes. Their 320 oak trees are in neat lines, and the couple has clear charts to show where truffles have been found each year. Leading the way is the friendly and energetic Australian Cattle Dog, Jet, who the Smiths trained as their own well-loved truffle dog.“They use pigs in Europe but dogs are obviously a pet too,” says Ted. “They are easy to train and handle, and they don’t eat the truffles like the pigs do. Jet has a good nose and wants to work.”
Black Perigord truffles are prized for their powerful taste and aroma that Ted describes as “the fragrance of the earth itself”. Their short winter season, and difficulty in both growing and preserving makes them a rare and valuable delicacy. Ted says it’s also a challenge to pick them at the right time.“There’s only one way, you’ve got to use your nose. It does take some skill, experience and calculated guesswork. It’s a fairly narrow window. Then there’s the weather conditions – you just hope you get rain at the right time and the right amount. You are in the lap of the gods there.”
Their crop has grown year on year, and although they are only a small farm, their truffles seem to be consistently larger than average. They now run very popular truffle hunts and sell to restaurants in the region. Although they had widespread interest, their record-breaking truffle was sold locally to Robin Murray, the owner and chef at Centennial Vineyards Restaurant. One of their most well-renowned customers is James Viles, chef and owner of Biota restaurant in Bowral, which was awarded the Regional Restaurant of the Year for 2014/2015 by the respected Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. James has a reputation for ‘nature focused’ food, with an emphasis on using local produce and has previously worked alongside two-Michelin-stared chef Hans Haas of Tantris in Munich and Alain Ducasse at Spoon in Hong Kong.
One of his signature dishes features local sheep’s milk curd, asparagus, roe, hen yolk and smoked rye and fresh shaved truffle from Yelverton, when it is available. Although it is technically accomplished, James describes it as a “gentle, humble dish that looks like the bottom of the chook pen.” He believes Australian truffles are just as good as those found in Europe.“They are more subtle but I kind of like that. They are dark and bloomy in their own way. Some Europeans don’t believe there are Australian truffles and if there are, they are probably shit. I hear that all the time.”
French truffle production has experienced a considerable decline in production over the last century and James says Europeans should “watch out” for the Australian competition.“I [have had] people say before they’ve even eaten our truffles ‘it’s not from Europe?’ And I say ‘it’s from up the road, mate’. You can see that they are thinking ‘How can you have a truffle in this little town?’ It’s always worth serving them, just for that look on their face.”
Australia is currently the world’s fourth largest truffle producer after France, Italy and Spain. As the Australian winter truffle season is the opposite of Europe, from May-August, they are in great demand around the world, selling for at least AUD$2,000 a kilogram (approximately £1,093). The first host trees were planted in Tasmania in 1992. The country produced around 8 tonnes in 2013, but less than half of that was exported. There are now truffle festivals all over Australia, drawing in locals and tourists alike. (trufflefestival.com.au).