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.