The Australian had never tasted French black truffles when he decided to become the first in his country to cultivate them. Now his company, Perigord Truffles of Tasmania, is supplying the Four Seasons, writes Susan Jung.
How did you become interested in growing truffles? 'I was sitting in a cafe [in Australia] and I overheard a conversation - they were talking about eating truffles in Paris. They were talking about their perfume and flavour, and how they were only available in the northern hemisphere in the winter. I have a background in agriculture and wanted to do something different so I moved my chair closer and listened. I thought, 'Why not try that?' I spoke to people at the French consulate in Canberra and it went from there. I thought if we could produce them in Australia, we're out of season to the rest of the world and that's a big advantage. We started the company in 1992 with 500 trees and gradually increased from there. In 1999, we dug up the first 'French' truffle grown in Australia.'
How are the truffles grown and harvested? 'We have 50 farmers cultivating just under 250 acres [100 hectares], and we have 10 truffle hunters with dogs trained to sniff them out. The truffles are grown under English oak, French oak and hazelnut trees. The trees are started in greenhouses and inoculated with the truffle spores before being planted. It takes several years before they start producing. We found a truffle last year under a tree that was only two years old - to my knowledge, that's the youngest tree to produce.'
How much do you produce each year? 'Last year we got 100kg; this year I won't know until the season ends because I don't know how many are still in the ground. But we're a long, long way in front from where we were at the same time last year.'
What's the biggest truffle your company has unearthed? 'It was 800 grams. [When you locate] a truffle, you start to dig - and with this one, they just kept digging. It didn't look very big from the top but it was upright under the soil.'
What affects the flavour? 'It's the soil but it's mostly the climate - it has to be cold. The truffles mature when it's cold; Tasmania and some areas of southeast Australia have similar growing conditions to Perigord [in central France] and a similar latitude, but the opposite seasons since we're in the southern hemisphere. The French harvest from December to February, we harvest in June, July and August.'
Do you have the same problems with poachers that they have in France? 'Not that I know of. All our sites are fenced but that's to protect them from the kangaroos and wombats. We didn't know until we started growing them that kangaroos and wombats like to eat truffles.'
What's your favourite way to eat truffles? 'I cook them at home - I think it's important to eat your product. I like them prepared very simply - shaved over steaming hot potatoes or with seafood. I think it was [French novelist] Colette who said, 'If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without.''