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Jul 01, 2015
Australian Farmers Add a Second Season for Truffle Lovers - Four Seasons Magazine

“This is an midden site” guide Ed Bourke, tells me in his Aussie twang as we wander up to a sand pit of shells and other ancient debris on the Bay of Fires, an epic windswept shore on Tasmania, the island south of Australia’s mainland.  “Some 5,000 years of Aboriginal litter is in here revealing everything they ate: shell fish, finfish, pepper berries and the occasional wallaby."

But inland, the delicacies of another, more distant tribe, have taken subterranean hold much more recently. 



“I always choose the liveliest dog in the pound,” Simon French explains as Mandy, a black crossbreed border collie, eagerly zigzags rows of 15-foot English oak trees planted here in the past decade. Every time Mandy paws into the ground, French throws down a washer with colored ribbon attached to it.  Although only a few trees have washers underneath it, one particularly dwarfish tree has almost a dozen.


“That’s what I like to see,” says Marcus Jessup, the farm manager says later when wandering the grove. He bends down and sniffs the ground carefully. “This one seems ready.” Jessup gingerly digs around the washer with a butter knife uncovering a black, golf-ball sized black bulb that he removes from the ground with the care and precision of a heart surgeon.


Crikey! It’s a perigaud truffle worthy of a Michelin starred chef (not an unlikely destination), here in the midst of the Tasmanian bush. In the US, these “black diamonds” easily fetch $1,200 a pound.


Australian farmers have been rapidly developing a truffle industry that has grown so ripe it has added a second season for worldwide truffle lovers who ideally imbibe the precious within a week of harvest before the flavor fades. For the rest of the year, most of us must make due with infused truffle flavored oils, which to aficionados, is what frozen orange juice is to fresh-pressed. And so while truffle lovers flock to the restaurants and food stores blessed with French and Italian truffles during those countries’ short-lived November to December harvest season, the Australian truffle season runs from May to July.


And in true Aussie fashion, the ancient brotherhood of trufieres is being invaded by Down Under make-it-happen improvisation. “We learned about this opportunity seven years ago and thought we’d make a go of it,” says John Baily, a rancher and farmer in the Tamar Valley in Southern Tasmania who replanted 20 acres field of poppies (Australia is also a big producer of pharmaceutical opium) with 3,000 oak trees whose roots had been dipped in truffle sludge to produce spores.


The truffles are sprayed clean of mud and brought inside a tool shed where seasonal workers dry them off in a spotless sink-sized bin with four small plastic fans bought at the local hardware store clamped to each corner. Were any consultants brought in from France or Europe to put together this operation? “Naaah, we just figured it out as we went along,” says Baily.


Many of Baily’s truffles ended up at the kitchen of Vue Du Monde, Melbourne’s destination local sourcing restaurant—the Southern Hemisphere’s version of NOMA—55 floors up the city’s iconic Rialto office skyscraper overlooking the city.


“Melbourne used to be one of the richest places in the world during our 1851 gold rush,” recalls Vue Du Monde’s chef, Shannon Bennett, who trained with Alain Ducasse in France. “We had some of the best chefs from France. French onion soup was invented here. So maybe it’s not such a big surprise that we’d develop our own truffle industry.” Every May, some 80 paying guests head out to his farm in the countryside to harvest truffles from the 500 southern facing oak trees he has planted.  “We added 90 tons of lime to get the P-H of my soil to eight—perfect for growing truffles,” says the perfectionistic Bennett. During the season his restaurant become a pilgrimage spot for truffle lovers yearning for truffle marshmallows, truffle onion soup, wagu beef and poached emu topped by truffle shavings and even bamboo and truffle infused tea brewed tableside by the restaurant’s tea sommelier (yes, they have one.)


“[The Australian State of] Victoria probably has more truffle farms than anywhere else in the world” says Bennett. “The way things are going in ten years time we might even start suffering from over production.” That will be good news for Asian and American restaurateurs who are snatching up this new horde.


“When they were first introduced to me a few years ago I was a little skeptical,” recalls Josiah Citrin who runs the Michelin starred Melisse restaurant in Los Angeles. “But they’re great and now I have a reliable source for summer.” Any differences between an Australian and European Truffles? “Not really,” says Citron. ”Speed to the table and the quality of the truffle are more important factors. If anything, I’d say we have way more consistency in the truffles coming from Australian. They’re trying to build their brand, so I suspect quality control there is strong. “ Citron ‘s Australian summer truffle menu includes truffle eggs, truffle risotto sweet white corn angnelotti with sliver of truffles shaved paper-thin over the food—“anything that can bring up the flavor and the aroma of the truffle,” says Citrin.


And what an aroma: delicately primordial, garlicky, earthy, almost human—they smell sexy.  But let’s be honest: there’s also something alluring about their odorless aura of money. “There are two types of people who eat truffles: those who think truffles are good because they are dear and those who know they are dear because they are good." noted the French poet Jean-Louis Vaudoyer.


Georgie Patterson, a hearty, red headed woman still lives in the basalt ranch house she built with her father in the Victorian countryside, probably fits both types. “I had six spaniels and my husband Marty said he’d like them to pay for themselves. I thought it would be fun to train them to be truffle dogs.” Now she rises at 5 am during harvest months to go to nearby farms to find truffles, or dig out her own from the 500 oaks she planted next to the house. “Marty has gotten a taste for truffles and now likes to shave them over his eggs for breakfast. I reckon he’s eaten several times the cost of the dogs,” she adds with a smile. “But I’m getting more busy than ever.  This has grown so quickly it stopped being a hobby.”


The Australians are aggressively catching up with the Europeans. Last year, 8.8 tons of truffles were harvested, doubling in three years the amount of black diamonds coming from Down Under. In contrast, France digs up around 40 tons of black truffles annually, but they’ve been at it for at least five centuries. “Last year I brought out my dogs to a new famer to harvest her first season of truffles“ recalls Patterson,  “I brought a fork and spoon to dig them out but when I saw her with a big shovel I said ‘you’re confident
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