Matt, let’s start with truffles for dummies. What IS a truffle, and what do truffles taste like?
Truffles are a fungus and are part of the mushroom family — but they grow below the surface, not above.
French black truffles usually have an earthy mushroom type of flavour and white Italian truffles have a more delicate flavour, with a hint of garlic and onion. People have varying reactions — some love the taste and aroma of truffles, whereas others think they’re ‘expensive dirt’!
Truffles have a reputation for being high-end and exclusive. How much do truffles sell for?
Truffles usually retail for about $2.50-$3.00 a gram. One truffle can weigh anything from 10 grams to 150 grams, so an individual truffle could range from $25 to $300 depending on its size. Remember, though, it only takes a few small slices of truffle to flavour or garnish a dish.
Buying truffles is as delicate as the fungus itself. Truffles lose moisture and weight from the moment they are picked and stored, so it’s important to buy and eat them as fresh as possible.
Most people associate truffles with the oak forests of France. When did people start cultivating truffles in Australia, and where could we find truffles Down Under?
The first truffle commercially harvested in Australia was in Tasmania in 1999. Over the last 20 years there have been commercial forests established in colder parts of Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, the ACT, and here in Stanthorpe on Queensland’s very frosty Granite Belt.
How does the quality of an Oz truffle measure up to the French version?
The process of inoculating plant roots with the French Black Perigord spores doesn’t vary around the world, so truffles should taste pretty much the same everywhere. Having said that, our Australian product is generally very highly regarded, due to our clean soils, air and rain. Western Australia is actually now one of the biggest truffle-producing regions in the world.
Can you tell us a bit about your own truffle enterprise at Stanthorpe in south-east Queensland?
Queensland truffle growers are generally very secretive because of their concerns about biosecurity and theft. With no other truffle ventures open to the public, we opened our Truffle Discovery Centre at Stanthorpe last winter to cater to Queensland truffle fans.
What do you do at the Truffle Discovery Centre?
We have two display truffle plantations, with a mix of hazelnut and English oak trees purchased from one of the two places in Australia that has a patent to coat the roots of the seedlings with truffle spores.
In about 4 years we hope to have our first crop of French black Perigord truffles and then every winter for about 50 years. Some of our clients in the region have also inoculated trees with Italian white truffle spores and may begin harvesting them from this coming winter, which will be an Australian first. Sometimes only one in five trees will produce a truffle, or a cluster of truffles, which is why truffles are a very rare and expensive delicacy.
At the Truffle Discovery Centre, we offer guided tours of our two plantations, and we also run displays of our truffle detection dogs at work.
We’re all familiar with images of pigs snuffling for truffles in French forests. What’s the story with truffle dogs?
Pigs are naturally attracted to the smell of truffles underground because the smell of the truffles is similar to the smell of a pig hormone — sort of a pig aphrodisiac! But commercial farmers don’t actually want pigs eating their truffles, so our truffle areas are fenced to stop wild pigs coming in and feasting.
Dogs are widely used on truffle farms because most dogs do not like the smell or taste of truffles — although I did see a Labrador eating truffles in Tasmania but, hey, Labradors eat everything! Trained dogs will show us they’ve found a truffle for the reward of their toy appearing out of our pocket.
We’ve trained a few dogs that now work on local farms. Some farmers bring their dog to us for training, and we have our own dog, Conan, who heads out with me as a hired truffle hunter during winter. He’s a mastiff-cross from a rescue organisation, which is where most of our detection dogs come from.
I take Conan through a row of trees in a commercial truffiere, he smells the ground and, if he smells truffles, he shows me that we need to dig.
Who are the main local customers for Queensland truffles at the moment?
Chefs and home cooks right around South East Queensland buy truffles during winter. Our truffle-infused Australian olive oils and Granite Belt honeys are now an extension of the truffle product and allow us to have retail truffle products for sale year-round. They’re getting more popular all the time.
How about the export market for Queensland truffles? What’s happening now and what lies ahead?
The truly wonderful thing about truffles as a product is that we have global demand all year but truffles are only available in winter in both hemispheres. That means we have strong export demand for Australian truffles during our winter when other countries are in summer.
Currently there is strong direct demand from Asia for truffles grown on the Southern and Darling Downs, and that’s supported by a weekly flight from Wellcamp Airport at Toowoomba to Hong Kong.
Most truffles in Australia are currently grown on small hobby farms, but that’s starting to change. There are now a few large commercial ventures being undertaken, with thousands of trees being planted. Two of those are very close to Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt.
Growers are starting to talk about the need for a co-op to be established to coordinate the cost-effective export of large orders to Asia and Europe where price and demand are strongest and on a scale to be rewarding for the farmer.
I think we have exciting times ahead for Queensland’s truffle industry.