Justin North
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Steve Brown

Black gold: Tuber melanosporum

In France, the country with which they are most associated, truffles enjoy a mythical reverence. Renowned gourmand Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin (1755–1826) praised the truffle as ‘the jewel of French cooking; prized for its unique flavour and intoxicating aroma’ and writer Alexandre Dumas (1802–70) hailed it as ‘gastronome’s holy of holies’. Ancient Greeks and Romans attributed benefits both aphrodisiac and therapeutic.

All this over a peculiar little fungus that grows underground. Yet the truffle remains a hugely expensive – not to mention popular – delicacy and culinary fascination. Centuries of tradition surround truffle-buying etiquette: buyers at a market cannot touch a truffle; they are permitted only to look and to smell. Such is the seductive delicacy of the fungi.

French folklore suggests that truffles are born of summer claps of thunder, and around the end of the nineteenth century, France was producing as much as 1000 tons of truffles annually. Over the next hundred years, however, its output fell dramatically, and wartime destruction, acid rain and the development of traditional truffle land for food production reduced the country’s annual truffle harvest to 30 to 60 tons. All such tribulation pushed truffle prices well into the thousands of dollars per kilogram.

Before their harvest was a commercially lucrative enterprise, it was a simple passion for truffles that led to their proliferation through the forests of Europe. All animals, it seems, love truffles and, once sniffed out, the truffles would be dug up and eaten by pigs, snails, deer and rodents. By defecating somewhere else, the animal would effectively inoculate a new area with truffle spores.

French farmers also tried planting acorns in the hole from which a truffle had just been taken, in the hope that the elusive T. melanosporum fungus would attach itself to the roots of the sapling of the oak or hazelnut tree. Oak and hazelnut trees are the two main species known to host the Tuber melanosporum and the truffles are found near, but not attached to, the root systems of the trees, generally about 100 millimetres below ground level.

Relying on this method of proliferation, however, proved too uncertain and since the 1970s scientists have been working on ways to artificially produce the truffle.

The truffles of Tasmania

The two predominant truffle species that have captured the world’s imagination are the White Italian Alba (T. magnatum) and the French Black Perigord (T. melanosporum). Truffle farms (known as ‘trufferies’) have been springing up all over Tasmania during the last few years, and now anyone can buy an inoculated tree infected with either the black or white truffle. The white truffle is grown on the roots of the poplar tree.

‘The French said we couldn’t grow wine, either,’ laughs Tim Terry. Terry is a Tasmanian entrepreneur expanding his current business into producing truffles for the commercial market. While deep-sea fishing with a friend off Tasman Island years ago, a conversation about truffle farming planted the seed in Terry’s mind. ‘It had never been done before, as far as we knew, in the Southern Hemisphere,’ he explains. ‘I now know that that’s because it’s too bloody hard!’

That it’s too hard hasn’t stopped Terry, who grew Australia’s first truffle in 1999, and has been running his truffle business for thirteen years. Terry formed Tasmanian Truffle Enterprises following the explosion of global interest in the potential for farming truffles in the Southern Hemisphere. ‘I realised this could be a commercially viable industry,’ he says. Producing truffles has taken Terry to France, for research into farming methods, several times. It has also made him something of an expert in dog training.

Askrigg, Terry’s 120-hectare property, houses some 19,000 trees over 33 hectares of cultivated plantation: 15,000 hazelnuts and 4000 oaks. The main house doubles as Terry’s office, and on his desk sits Australia’s first truffle, proudly cast in bronze.

With the help of a government grant, Terry has invested a great deal into monitoring conditions on his property. Probes in the ground measure rainfall and the depth of its penetration – an important factor influencing whether truffles will flourish. A truffle is almost always found, according to Terry, in the first 10 centimetres of earth around the base of a tree. Heavy rains at the wrong times adversely affect production, as truffles rot in the ground in excess moisture, or may not grow at all if the soil is too wet or cold.

Terry understands truffle faming better than anyone in Australia, but at the same time his confidence is riddled with the inconsistency of his truffle finds. ‘I don’t know why some trees consistently produce truffles and others don’t,’ Terry admits, pointing out a particular row of trees on his property that have produced more truffles than any other row, without any obvious feature that might contribute to their success.

Truffle hunters

Truffles are harvested in winter as that is when they mature. Traditional truffle hunters have been female pigs, attracted by the aroma that resembles pigs’ sexual hormones. Yet despite their indisputable prowess in tracking down truffles, sows also have a fondness for the valuable fungus. ‘I have heard stories of pigs taking off their owner’s fingers in the wrestle for a truffle,’ cautions Terry, who has opted instead to train a young dog for the job.

‘Dogs have a 21-day imprint period,’ Terry explains, ‘after which they’ll remember something for life.’ So every day for twenty-one days while training his springer spaniel, Hoover, Terry played increasingly complicated retrieval games. Using a film canister of cotton wool drizzled with truffle oil (‘Canitruf’ – a French product designed specifically for training dogs to find truffles) as bait, Terry would initially reward the dog to fetch and return the canister. The game graduated to the dog having to find canisters buried around the roots of trees where truffles were likely to be found. The process is not without fault, however, and dogs have ‘about an hour’s’ concentration span, according to Terry, before they need a rest.

Mechanised detection systems have also proved successful in testing, with a pre-programmed automated ‘nose’ sniffing out truffle spore. The electronic nose was developed by Terry and Professor Bryn Hibbert of the chemosensory department at the University of New South Wales, but until Terry’s plantations are large enough and commercially viable enough to complete the half-million-dollar machine, dogs are still the best means of truffle detection.

A machine can get close to the truffle, but can’t pinpoint it exactly, which is why the last word remains with the human nose. ‘It’s a cold, wet occupation,’ says Terry, who demonstrates the final stage: when the dog has sniffed out a potential truffle, Terry gets down on his knees and sniffs around the area. Truffle hunting is best at about 10 or 11 a.m. as a truffle’s aroma needs the gentle heat of the day to sufficiently intensify for detection. A ripe truffle will emit such a strong scent it is distinguishable from just above the ground to the human nose. Gently prising the earth, care must be taken not to damage the truffle as it’s being unearthed.

It’s obvious that a truffle spore has inoculated the area around the roots of a tree by the presence of what’s known as a brulé. Like the culinary version, brulé in this sense means ‘burnt’, and refers to the parched appearance of the circular area of soil around the base of the tree. The brulé generally expands to occupy the diameter of the tree’s branch span, killing grass and any other plants living on it.

It is the brulé that has been a time-honoured indicator of the presence of a truffle fungi working beneath the ground, but the brulé simply means that the fungus is there and that it’s active. It does not guarantee the presence of truffles beneath the soil’s surface.

Introducing the truffle spore

Truffles don’t actually grow on the tree roots; they develop near inoculated roots. The tree is a carrier or facilitator for the hyphae in the soil, the spider’s web of spore development surrounding the roots of the trees around which truffles appear. It is within this web that truffles can develop.

Tim Terry leaves little to chance in his trufferie. In the inoculation process it is necessary to be clinical because, ‘the last thing you want is the wrong fungus to establish itself around the roots of a tree,’ he explains. Once another type of fungus has settled there, it is very difficult to introduce the truffle spores: this must be established early.

While Terry won’t divulge all his secrets, he does give a rough guide to the inoculation process. The first step in this process is to collect the acorns and hazelnuts and sterilise them. From there they are germinated in a sterile medium. Terry uses an outside contractor to sterilise his potting mix, so that there is a trackable audit trail. Diligence in the sterilisation process is crucial. The trees have to be grown in near hospital-like conditions.

Only after young oak and hazelnut trees have grown to at least 5 centimetres is the truffle spore introduced. At this point, the tree has sprouted just a couple of leaves and its root system is in early development.

The truffle spore is introduced to the roots of the sapling and the sapling returned to the enclosed nursery, where it will remain for the first year of its life. Once the tree has had this time to mature, an expert is brought in to verify the presence of the fungi around the roots of the tree. Only when the fungus has been identified will Terry plant the tree on his property.

Pierre Jean Pebeyre, France’s largest truffle wholesaler, has visited Terry’s property. The French visitor remarked on Australians’ impatience. ‘Pebeyre told me that the French don’t even look for truffles until the trees have been growing for ten years,’ recalls Terry, ‘but in Australia we found the first truffle after only four years of growing’.

Terry lives for the day when he can pull a truffle from beneath every tree. But for this to happen he must give it time. Some of Terry’s oldest trees stopped fruiting when they were interfered with during research, and are only just returning to fruit now. ‘I’ve had experts from France and other countries visit this farm and there’s nothing that says we can’t do this. ‘Nobody has told me I’m barking up the wrong tree here,’ so I am continuing to grow this business and hopefully a wonderful export industry for Tasmania.’

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