The Future of The Australian Truffle Industry

Simon McCrudden is Co-Founder and Director of Madame Truffles and has enjoyed seeing the industry boom over the past 7 years.  Here's his thoughts on where to from here.

From the outside looking in, Australia’s home grown truffle industry seems like a nirvana – Australia once again showing how it can produce the highest quality ingredients, make them accessible to the many, and bring a new world twist to an old world icon.

And I would agree that there are a huge amount of positives with the industry. When we launched Madame Truffles in 2011, truffles were the preserve of expensive restaurants and remained out of reach and mysterious for regular food lovers. Since then they have become a winter staple for many more people.

However, there is a shadow cast from the diamond of the kitchen that has the potential to take the shine off this great Australian success story. It is with some hesitation that I’m writing this but I believe that by encouraging awareness and debate around some of the murkier aspects of the Australian truffle industry it can mature and become even stronger.

 

The Three Key Issues

At times, the truffle industry can feel like the Wild West – a free for all, devoid of proper scrutiny and regulation. There are three key issues that have the potential to be damaging to the industry as well as to consumers.

 

1.     Sourcing unreliability

Truffles are tricky to grow and many farmers wait 10 years or more for their first truffle to appear. This represents a huge investment of time, money and love. So clearly the stakes are high.

What has happened in this culinary gold rush is that there are a number of key producers who are growing high quality truffle in large numbers. These are the farms that we have visited and source from. Interestingly these great producers  are also typically the source of truffles that other farmers, unable to produce their own, buy from and sell as their own. 

The farms that do this have typically built a business and life around being truffle producers, organising hunts and selling at markets. And then there are larger producers who have historically been at the forefront of the industry but have in recent years seen their yields decline. Having negotiated contracts domestically and internationally to supply truffle, they now find themselves in a position where they need to fulfil orders but aren’t producing at historic levels.

Although this might be considered resourceful, there are risks around traceability and providence. One of the biggest issues internationally is the flood of 'fake' truffles into the market - that is truffles being passed off as having culinary value when they are worthless. And this is no longer just an international issue - this season we have seen worthless 'whitish' truffle being passed off as similar to the Alba white. The industry needs to support those who invest in growing truffles, but should also expect certainty around sourcing from all farmers and potential farmers coming into the industry.

 

2.     Listeria and health issues

This lack of clear tracing from farm to plate is an issue not just for ethical reasons but also for consumer health and safety.

Because they grow in soil truffles can carry bacteria, the most potentially damaging of which is listeria. This problem is exacerbated when truffle is paired with dairy products such as cheese or cream.

There is currently little guidance from the industry warning consumers about the correct way to use truffles. And if an outbreak happened, given the unreliability of sourcing issues, tracing back to the farm responsible would be very hard.

This is a critical issue for the industry. Indeed, one need only look at Creative Gourmet and their frozen berry sourcing issues to see the damage that could be done to the whole industry.

Correct sourcing, proper treatment of truffle, and consumer education, are all vital to ensure the integrity of the product and the industry.

 

3.     Truffle grading

Proper grading of truffles in Australia is still a rarity. The leading farms grade properly according to French standards. But many don’t, and a large number of truffles sold to consumers – many of whom still need educating about this exotic food – are not graded at all.

Truffles are understandably more expensive than most foods. As such, we believe there needs to be a formalised industry adopted approach to grading that becomes a standard for any truffles sold.

At present, the industry body – The Australian Truffle Growers’ Association – have resisted calls to do this and enforce these standards across the industry. This is not helped by the fact that it is an amateur body which does not have representation from the major quality producers. For proper standards to be established we believe a more formalised body needs to be created, run by commercial producers with representation from other stakeholders, that will develop more robust standards across the industry.

 

So what to do?

I believe that more oversight is needed for the truffle industry. Too much regulation can be restrictive and problematic, but the smokes and mirrors of the industry can be murky and misleading at best, and potentially life threatening at worst. 

Part of this need should be answered by Government. But it also needs to be answered by the industry itself. There needs to be greater transparency around the sourcing of truffles, and we would urge farmers and potential farmers to be upfront about their produce. We appreciate that for many people trying to grow truffles, it might be an expensive investment that is yet to deliver, but the industry as a whole will be stronger if they are more transparent.

Madame Truffles is doing our bit to help source correctly, and educate consumers. But we believe this needs to be an industry led approach to ensure widespread adoption of ethical practices. 

The Annual Pilgrimage to Terra Preta Trufferie

Ever since Madame Truffles opened in 2011, we have been lucky enough to spend time with Peter and Kate Marshall from Terra Preta Trufferie in Braidwood, NSW.

The Marshalls' approach to truffle farming is industry leading and borne from an historical and philosophical approach that is designed to recreate as faithfully as possible the truffle environments of France prior to the World Wars.

It is a minimal intervention and naturalistic approach that produces some of the finest, and certainly the most distinctive black truffles in Australia. The truffles' smoky aroma is one that we have always loved since the day we started. And it is one that is sought after by chefs the world over who recognise the exceptional quality of these Australian truffles. 

The Marshalls' approach has also seen their farm vastly increase yield from trees in a time when a number of trufferies across the country are struggling to replicate their early success.

Aside from all that, the Marshalls are a wonderful family and very generous with their time and knowledge. Which is why Madame Truffles visits them at least once every year!

Whilst conditions haven't been ideal in the run up thanks to a lack of rain, their approach to irrigation means that despite dry soil there are already a huge amount of truffles being produced. Today's visit produced beautiful truffle, some of which was enjoyed at lunch with scrambled eggs. 

As always, we will have Terra Preta truffles in our stores when we open and throughout the season, so please pop in so you can see and smell these truffles for yourself!  

Madame Truffles Private Truffle Dinners

Madame Truffles is delighted to offer a private bespoke dining experience in the comfort of your own home. Our talented chef will design & create truffle dishes for you & your guests that can’t be found anywhere else.

This is an exclusive opportunity to enjoy Perigord Black Truffle & is available for a limited time, from late-June to early-September only. 

Each menu is individually designed for your group, with seasonal produce in mind.  

Here is a taste of what we offer:

Truffle & Cheese Toasts,  Crab & Truffle Soup,  Scallops & Truffle

Truffle Gnocchi,  Truffle Lobster Souffle,  Baked Fish & Truffles

Whole Roast Chook stuffed with Truffle,  Scotch Fillet with Truffle Butter

Baked Truffle Camembert,  Baked Quince with Truffle Ice Cream

 

Cost (minimum 4 people)

5 course dinner   $300 per / person*        3 course brunch or lunch   $200 per/person*

(*Drinks not included.  Matching wine menu available upon request.)

 

What we offer:

- Individually designed truffle menu 

- Highest quality extra grade black truffle

- Crockery and glassware

- Chef & Madame Truffles

- Weekday & weekend private dining experience

- Brunch, lunch or dinner

 

Please contact Bernadette on 0430 017 480 or email truffles@madametruffles.com.au if you are interested.

Madame Truffles comes to Sydney

Ah Sydney.  What a beautiful city with amazing food and experiences just around every corner. We can't wait to open our truffle store in the heart of Sydney, in Surry Hills. Hopefully we will add something a little different to the city's food experiences!

So what does Madame Truffles Sydney look like? 

The truffle store opens Friday 26th June and will be open every Wednesday to Sunday until August 30th. Each week we will showcase fresh truffle (tuber melanosporum) from the best truffieres across the country and everyone will also have the opportunity to come in and smell the differences for themselves. As with wine, the terroir has a pronounced impact on the aroma of truffles - for example, truffles from WA express cheese and wine overtones; truffles from Braidwood smell strong & smoky; truffles from Tasmania have a distinct rainforest floor aroma.

The truffle shop will also house truffle products such as truffle ice cream, pasta, honey, salt, popcorn and other treats.  Pepe Saya Truffle Butter will also be available.  All of our products are made with fresh truffle – we never use synthetic truffle oil nor other fake aromas.

We will also be co-hosting a truffle dinner at Pasta Emilia on July 15th, where the wonderful Peter and Kate Marshall from Terra Preta Trufferie in Braidwood will be there to talk about their unique approach to growing truffles. And of course, with amazing food cooked by Annamaria and her chefs from Emilia in Italy.

We look forward to opening in Sydney and welcoming each of you into our truffle store.

Madame Truffles Visits Terra Preta

Terra Preta is a wonderful trufferie run by Peter and Kate Marshall (with help from all the kids!) in Braidwood, NSW.

Madame Truffles and the Marshalls have been close partners ever since we opened our doors 5 years ago. We ran an interview with Peter in the newspaper we printed in the first year, and this was the third time we visited their farm. Every time you talk with the Marshall's you learn more than you can remember and leave feeling more enlightened and positive about the future of the truffle industry in Australia. But you also leave wishing that more people could experience time with these amazing people.

It is hard to summarise what makes Terra Preta and its truffle unique, but here is a quick guide:

1. Terra Preta is so named because they make their own 'black earth' each year that provides natural nutritional addition to the trufferie. This, in part, gives the truffles their stunning unique 'smoky' aroma.

2. Peter has extensively researched what made the French tufferies so successful prior to the World Wars and has developed his farm to mimic this natural habitat. In particular this involves extensive pruning of the trees to mimic the squirrels and deers that would trim the trees in early 20th century France. 

3. This pruning is critical for a number of reasons. Firstly, it allows for appropriate sunlight to hit the ground in the summer. But it also sends signals to the truffles underground that aids their development. 

4. The Marshalls use no pesticides or herbicides. 

Just to note that this is a very superficial summary. Peter is a treasure trove of knowledge about truffles, soil, forestry, irrigation and the broader natural environment that he and Kate are so keen to protect and develop for future generations, and has been investigating truffles since the 1970s.

As a result of their approach, the trufferie has a very different look and feel to the farms we have visited elsewhere. 

The initial plot that their truffle still comes from is a mixture of hazel and oak. Peter has planted many more trees that will start to fruit in the next few years, and is experimenting with multiple oaks from around the world.

More importantly, what about the truffles? Well, remarkably, on 23rd May, we went hunting and uncovered a number of ripe truffles which is unheard of at this time of year. 

The truffles are found by Sal and Shadow. They will feature as the stars of Dog of the Month at some point soon!

And as a result, for dinner we had a beautiful truffle mash potato courtesy of Andy Gale (pictured above)! We also returned to Melbourne with 250g of ripe truffle to play with ahead of the store openings. 

As a final note, Peter also invited us to wander through the pine forest, which he had planted in the 1990s and we foraged for Saffron Milk Cap and Slippery Jacks. We also wandered through the wetlands he re-created. Amazing. 


Why is WA the world's most successful truffle region?

It is well known that this little pocket of Manjimup & Pemberton is responsible for over 80% of Australian truffles. But why is this?

Little is actually known about the reasons for the regions' success. When asked about this a few years ago, Alf Salter of Truffle&Wine responded:

...the area is perfect for growing truffles. Manjimup has warm summers and cool, wet winters. But our winters are warmer than any truffle growing area in the world and people thought we wouldn’t be successful. Now that we are successful, people are coming up with the idea that maybe that is the reason. I have no idea. I believe it is an x-factor in the soil that encourages fungal growth.” 

(Source: http://www.selectormagazine.com.au/food/recent-articles/gold-diggers)

One of the things we asked everybody we spoke with when we visited WA last week was why is this small region - the closest truffle producing region to the equator - so successful?

It's worth quickly recapping that the traditional French environment where black truffles naturally grow are warm summer days with good sunlight, followed by frosty and mainly dry winter days.

Manjimup certainly delivers the former, but the latter? The truffle farmers we spoke with all agreed that the temperature needs to be below 20 degrees in late autumn/winter for a great harvest, and this needs to be consistent (many days of below 20). However, just below 20 is still much warmer than the winters in France.

We decide to visited the Blakers to see if they could shed some light on what makes this region one of the worlds biggest producer of truffle.  Al Blakers, aka the King of Truffles was overseas when we visited but we had the pleasure of meeting his son Ben.  

As well as having a producing trufferie, the Blakers also have an extensive nursery, supplying farms in WA and beyond with inoculated truffle trees.

  Ben Blakers amongst the truffle trees

 

Ben Blakers amongst the truffle trees

The Blakers nursery - where it all begins literally.

The Blakers nursery - where it all begins literally.

Ben has experience and knowledge well beyond his years. He is quietly spoken, warm and generous with his time. He started learning about truffle at 12yo, when his father Al started inoculating trees. 

For Ben, the answer to our questions lay in the loam soil and root system of the area. In particular, the abundance of Karri trees (Eucalyptus diversicolor), which are unique to South-West WA.

http://www.westernaustralia-travellersguide.com/karri-tree.ht

Below is a picture of a Karri tree at the bottom of the Blakers' trufferie.

"The karri supports an extensive ecosystem which is connected to the granite outcrops of the lower south-west and the many subsequent creeks and rivers created from runoff"  

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucalyptus_diversicolor)

Karri trees also grow in loam soil, which is predominant in the region. Loam is renowned for being ideal for plant growing. It is equal parts sand and silt, and a little less clay. Loam is both nutrient rich but also perfect for water drainage in that it allows time for plants to access the water but not too slowly that the soil becomes water logged. Dion Range from Stonebarn Lodge also believes the loam soil is integral to truffle growth. 

So, it seems that the reasons why WA produces so much high quality truffle comes down to a number of factors and perhaps the complex interaction between them: the karri trees, the loam soil, the climate...and as most of the truffle farmers say "a little luck". For now, the elusive black truffle remains elusive.

Madame Truffles Visits Stonebarn

Approximately 4 hours south of Perth and half way between Manjimup & Pemberton, is a boutique truffle farm called Stonebarn Lodge (http://www.stonebarn.com.au/).

Madame Truffles has been showcasing truffle from Stonebarn for the past 4 years. The truffle is exceptional, robust and aromatic. It is dark brown inside with strong white veins. It is arguably some of the best black truffle in the world.

The trufferie is hidden amongst tall gum and karri trees, 3km off the main road, down a dirt road, in a beautifully lush and perfectly sloped part of the world.  Looking over the truffle trees is a stone barn built by Dion & Sharon Range and their two boys Jake and Ari. The barn itself, more like a turn of the century grand old home, is made from thousands of orange and brown stones sourced from the local area. Inside the lodge are grand ceilings, open fireplaces, a commercial kitchen, several lounge areas, a dining hall and six king-sized bedrooms with their own ensuite and kitchenette. 

getting ready.jpg

There is much to love about this place including the use of iron and wood furnishings collected from the old defunct railway at the bottom of the farm, the open cellar, the generous hospitality… and the copper fittings; the kitchen and bathroom taps & shower fittings are beautifully fitted with copper pipes. From the living areas, bedrooms and deck, you can look out over the truffle farm. 

There are approximately 2,000 truffle trees planted here, on approximately 165 acres of land. The first planting was 50:50 oak and hazel. Due to the success of the oak trees and longevity of oak, the second planting consisted of many more oak trees, with the English oak proving to be the most successful producer of truffle thus far. 


  The sand is evidence of truffle growth

 

The sand is evidence of truffle growth

The trees are given quite a bit of space to grow, in contrast to the truffle farms visited in Manjimup, with approximately 5m between rows. The trees are also pruned in the Spring and look like a pretty upside down triangle. The pruning and the space allows the sun to heat the soil in the summer, and the light morning frost to cover the soil in the winter – sun and frost present perfect conditions for growing truffle.

When we visited last week, truffles were already cracking through the soil. The soil itself is loam, which is nutrient rich, retains the right amount of water and easy to handle. Whilst we wandered through the trees, Peri the golden Labrador sniffed out a number of early truffles. We tagged the trees and covered the truffles with soil so that they could continue to ripen and not be eaten by bugs. We noted many new trees producing for the first time. Unsurprisingly, Dion expects his trees to produce even more fruit this year, due to a combination of perfect weather conditions + tree development and new trees producing. 

Dion has also planted some trees inoculated with white truffle spores, so we shall wait and see if anything appears in the coming years!

Whilst Pemberton is technically part of the Manjimup region, it is interesting to explore how the two areas differ. The yield from producing trees in Pemberton seems to be higher (although as is always the case with this industry, exact figures are hard to come by) but whether it is the soil, the slopes, the abundance of Karri trees, or something else altogether that improves truffle production, is hard to know.

We will explore what makes this part of WA, an area that in many ways shouldn't produce truffle as it is so close to the equator, such a phenomenal truffle producing region, in another post soon.

 

Key Stonebarn Facts

2,000 trees

60% oak, 40% hazel

The soil is loam

You can stay at Stonebarn Lodge.  Visit Stonebarn.com.au for details.

 

 

Madame Truffles visits Truffle&Wine

Although exact figures for truffle production in Australia are hard to come by, it is understood that Manjimup is responsible for 80-85% of the country’s entire truffle yield.  This beautifully lush part of the world, approx 4 hours drive south of Perth, seems to have all the right conditions for truffle growing – the perfect climate, the right soil, clever nurserymen and passionate growers (the CSIRO also played a critical role in the 1990s in investigating indigenous truffle spores in the region prior to the inoculation of truffle trees).

A major producer in the area is the Truffle and Wine Company (T&W). Run by Alf Salter, it is one of the most successful truffieres in the country and is considered to be the largest producer of truffle in the world! Alf’s achievements are remarkable and he, along with his team, continues to expand the industry by thinking innovatively and promoting Australian truffle both here and overseas.

Oh but these truffle successes have not stopped Alf from doing some hard yakka on the farm:

 


The truffiere itself covers 50 hectares and 13,000 inoculated trees have been planted. Stuart and Shane, with Bella the dog took us for a very early truffle hunt…

Shane and Bella make a great team

Shane and Bella make a great team

 

Stuart, Harry and the team at T&W have done a great deal of research into truffle growing, experimenting with different methods and techniques, and collecting data on just about everything to do with truffle…only to find that truffle growing is an elusive process and the most of the research into growing and harvesting truffle is inconclusive!

However, what they have learnt is not get in the way of nature and this is their guiding principle:  “We’ve learnt to let nature do its thing”, says Stuart.  They employ a 3-year cycle approach to pruning – the tree canopies to grow for 3 years and are then cut back.  This process is staggered across the plantation. This is partly due to the understanding that the tree roots mirror the canopies and so by allowing the trees to grow, they build a rich web of roots under the trees. They also do this for practical reasons – they have 13,000 trees to prune.

The size of this truffiere makes May to September an incredibly busy time. T&W use eight dogs, harvesting seven days a week during this four month period. The dogs hunt for approximately an hour (or until they get bored or don’t want to do it anymore).  Three dogs – Bella, Rosie and Geordie (Geordie is currently in training…and is slightly manic…she did jump into the back of our car whilst we were at the truffiere) live in Manjimup – whilst another five are flown in with their trainer Adrian from NSW for a three month period.

The bulk of their truffle (approx 95%) is sent overseas where there is increasing demand from the world’s top chefs. France and the US are particularly big markets, each buying over 1 tonne of their truffle each year, with Hong Kong a close third. The Chinese market could be even bigger but the government banned the import of Australian black truffle following the Australian Government’s decision to ban the import of Chinese truffle.

And how is this season shaping up? “The temperature dropped off 4 weeks earlier than normal in March this year so it should be a good year. We are already seeing surface truffles emerge, which is 1-2 weeks earlier than normal” says Stuart.

T&W staff have a sweepstake on the total tonnage of this year’s harvest. We can’t reveal where the smart money is, but suffice to say it’s well over the amount produced in the last two years.



Key Truffle & Wine Co. Facts:

13,000 trees

90% hazel, 10% oak (three types)

T&W have produced 4.5-5 tonnes of truffle in each of the last two years, with an increase expected this year

95% of their truffle is exported to major markets in the US, France and Hong Kong.


PS. Here is a photo of Bill, Alf’s brother.  Him and Jason were mostly responsible for moving the big rocks for landscaping (although Alf did help out)!

Madame Truffles 2015 stores

 

Madame Truffles is very excited to be opening for the first time in Sydney this year.  She is also thrilled to be opening at the Queen Victoria Market, a historic and culturally significant Melbourne landmark.  

Of course, she will open her store again in Yarra Place, South Melbourne, across the road from her dear friends at St. Ali.  She can't wait to catch up with everyone who pops by and meet some new people.

Madame Truffles will also be opening a store at the Swan Street Chamber of Commerce. This inspiring space has been curated by Pop Union and showcases food, design & the arts.  Here, our truffle products will be available 7 days a week, with fresh truffle available on the weekend (only).

And...

Our Sydney store will be just off Riley St (enter Reservoir St) Surry Hills. In partnership with the wonderful Pasta Emilia we will be transforming part of the pasta space into a truffle haven.

Only seven weeks until we open...lots to do...

Truffle Trips in May

The Madame will be hitching up her skirt and heading around the country to spend time at the truffle farms this May. Boots have been bought and maps have been pinned.

Our first stop will be Western Australia.  This is where the largest number of Australian truffle are produced - approximately 80% of all Australian truffles are harvested here, and it is these truffles that are enjoyed the world over.

About 3.5 hours south of Perth is the Truffle & Wine company.  Truffle & Wine are possibly the largest producer of French black truffle... in the world!   What an amazing achievement!  As Chairman Alf Salter has said ‘I remember the relief after seven years of waiting. We were no longer a hazelnut farm; we had become a producing truffière!”.   Alf is very pleased with the way the season is shaping up (perfect conditions for growing truffle) and we are very much looking forward to our visit.  Alf is a truffle legend!

You cannot go to Manjimup without visiting Al Blakers from Manjimup Truffles. (Al will be doing truffle things OS in May so we will have the pleasure of meeting his son Ben). Al is affectionately known as the King of Truffles and is a renowned truffle grower... being the king, it's totally appropriate for the Madame to spend some time at his farm.

We, of course, will also visit the gorgeous Dion and Sharon Range (and (Peri the dog) who run Stonebarn Trufferie in Pemberton. An independent producer of exceptional quality truffle, Madame Truffles has sold their truffles for the last three years. We are also lucky enough to be staying at Stonebarn Lodge (we very much recommend booking a stay there).

After WA it's then back to the East Coast and across to Braidwood NSW to see the Marshalls.  We love spending time with the Marshalls. Peter and Kate are phenomenal people - a treasure trove of truffle knowledge with exceptionally high standards and a unique approach to truffle farming that sees them making their own black soil for the trees. Hopefully we will be able to make some with them. The soil gives their truffles a unique smokey flavour that is unlike any other Australian truffle.

Bye for now. 

The Burgundy Truffle

Madame Truffles presents: The Burgundy Truffle!

Screen-Shot-2014-09-25-at-5.21.26-PM-300x223.png

Found in almost all European countries, the burgundy truffle is harvested from September to late December. It is highly prized across Europe and America and used in some of the worlds best restaurants. Prior to the 20th century, these truffles were plentiful in United Kingdom but are now rare.  Oh but there are unconfirmed reports of burgundy truffle growing in China…which isn’t that far from here compared with Europe.  A trip to China perhaps?

So what does burgundy truffle look like and how does it compare to the Périgord black truffle? It is lighter inside and slightly less intense but is not a bad substitute in the warmer months.  It has a strong hazelnut-like aroma.

Is the burgundy truffle similar to the summer truffle? Structurally both truffles are very similar.  However, the aroma of the burgundy truffle is stronger compared with that of the summer truffle, and the flesh is a slightly darker hazel colour.