Selling Australian-grown Périgord truffles to French chefs may seem a foolhardy, even impossible goal, but that is exactly what The Truffle & Wine Co has successfully done.
Why would French chefs resist having access to Tuber melanosporum, the second-most valued truffle, twice a year instead of once? There are many possibilities - pride, snobbery and disbelief that truffles from Australia could be as good as the French product, leading to an unwillingness to even taste the fungus. But recently there has been a change in attitude.
"Last year we cracked the French market, and it is now in the top six of our biggest markets. We sold 500 kilos of Périgord truffles to French clients last year," says Shane Styles, vice-president of marketing at The Truffle & Wine Co.
This represents more than 10 per cent of the 2013 crop, which came in at approximately 4,300kg, with a forecast for this season (late May to September) of 5,500kg, which will account for around 60 per cent of the Australian truffle harvest.
Included in the new French client base is Restaurant Bruno in Lorgues, France, a Michelin-starred restaurant that is known for using more truffles than any other restaurant in the world, with a year-round focus on truffle tasting menus only.
Chef Umberto Bombana, of three-star Michelin restaurant Otto e Mezzo, has a summer black truffle menu available until the end of the season.
While Bombana has been purchasing truffles from The Truffle & Wine Co for four years, for the past two years he has only used that company to source his Australian truffles.
"The main reason for exclusivity is I like the product, another is the support that they as farmers can offer. I use a lot of truffles, I am known for truffles, so to have the support of the truffle farmer direct is a joy for a chef, and this creates a certain synergy," says Bombana. "They are very similar in taste to those from Périgord, with an equal fragrance and aroma."
Styles says their truffles are now sold in more than 30 countries. "We are creative with our partnerships, targeting key chefs. We are able to provide support including marketing assistance, farm visits and truffles for promotional dinners. We have a high quality product for the entire season, which no other Australian company can match."
The company also supplies Richard Ekkebus of Amber and Shane Osborn of St Betty in Hong Kong, as well as American chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se, and Heston Blumenthal.
Styles is often asked if the two seasons of Périgord black truffles are going to dilute its status and reduce interest in the product from chefs - his answer is a firm no.
Bombana agrees: "Chefs love the opportunity to create truffle dishes using summer ingredients. To create a truffle dish that is completely different due to what is available seasonally is exciting for them, and this excitement helps the Australian truffle industry through demand.
"Truffles express so much, having them available at this time of year gives chefs an extra ingredient to play with, and they are a great match for summer vegetables," he says.
Bombana's menu showcases this attitude with the home-made tagliolini with butter, parmesan and black truffle. The addition of the truffle brings focus to the pasta and elevates it to a restaurant dish.
"For me truffle enhances flavours, it is not necessarily the star, but it makes the dish a star, it makes the ingredients shine, such as in risotto, pasta and egg dishes," says Styles.
The company has just introduced a high-end wine range to pair with truffles, which was made in an old-world style, which Styles thinks are a better pairing than many Australian wines.
"A German riesling is a great match for lighter dishes, moving through to a pinot noir from Burgundy, and of course a Bordeaux red as dishes become heavier."
Styles says that part of the company's success and domination of the market is due to science. "Other Australian producers have a product as good as ours, but thanks to five years hard work by our full-time scientist we have cracked the secret to high yield and low rot that our competitors have not managed."