Until recently, truffles were a limited winter speciality. With the advent of the Aussie version, gourmets are treated to a second flush from June to September. Australians began transplanting trees inoculated with truffle spores from France almost two decades ago, and Hongkongers are starting to reap the benefits.
This year, about 60 Australian growers will produce an estimated 4.5 tonnes of black truffles, most of which are exported, says Graham Duell, president of the Australian Truffle Growers Association. He expects that by 2016, output will rise to 10 tonnes. Truffle farms are scattered across Australia, bar the Northern Territory.
Truffles haven't been easy to cultivate; farmers were breaking new ground. "It was a challenge. Truffles had never been grown in the southern hemisphere. There was no book to tell you how to grow truffles in our soils," says Tim Terry, a Perigord truffle farmer from Tasmania, who runs Truffles Australis. Terry tried growing them under hazelnut trees first, as is common in France, to no avail. "They were a total failure," he says. "We lost about 10 years of our lives because we had the wrong trees." Terry moved to oaks with better success, and now supplies five-star kitchens throughout Asia.
Australia's truffles grow on privately run trufferies, or farms. This means they aren't immediately whipped out of the ground, unlike their French counterparts, of which many grow on public property and are so highly sought after they are plucked on discovery.
Terry's hunters sniff the ground to assess maturity, and leave flags in the soil if their olfactory senses are not satisfied. The truffle is harvested once its aroma reaches a peak. "Once you cut a truffle it'll die," says Terry.
Terry, who has supplied truffles to chefs such as Richard Ekkebus at Amber, says his truffles have a particularly thick, syrupy fragrance that speaks of the unique soil and cool Tasmanian climate, which differs from those grown in other parts of Australia. The truffles broadcast their terroir "a bit like a good wine", he says. And just like French-grown truffles, the aroma gets better as the season progresses, hitting a high point mid-season.
With upmarket restaurants such as Amber, Sabatini at The Royal Garden in Tsim Sha Tsui, and Aux Beaux Arts, the French brasserie at the MGM casino in Macau, all dishing up the Aussie-grown black truffles, quality does not seem an issue. Terry insists these truffles are every bit as good as those grown in France. "You can grow a Golden Delicious apple in England, or a Golden Delicious apple in Hong Kong, and it is still a Golden Delicious," he says.
At French fine dining institution, The Peninsula's Gaddi's, chef Remi Van Peteghem is using truffles harvested just days ago on Australia's west coast. He has been surprised by how much the aroma resembles the French-grown diamonds that he worked with in the past. It's the first time he has used Australian-grown truffles. "To be honest, I had never heard about Australian black truffles before coming to Asia as they're such a quintessentially French ingredient. As a chef, I never really needed to source them elsewhere. I'm glad I did," he says.
Harlan Goldstein is a self-proclaimed "King of Truffles". Goldstein has recently been shaving black diamonds on porcini mushroom flatbread with fontina cheese as part of his black truffle menu at restaurant Gold. His truffles are from Tasmania. The 60-80 gram bulbs are "perfect", he says, having an intense fragrance. "My opinion is that the Tasmanian black truffles are even more impressive than the French-grown."
Even the French are eating Aussie truffles. Alf Salter is chairman of The Wine and Truffle Company in Manjimup, Western Australia, Australia's largest truffle producer. Of the 2,500 kilograms Salter expects to harvest this year, more than 80 per cent will be exported overseas.
He says the company exports many to France, where chefs are learning to adapt traditional winter truffle dishes to new summer offerings. "There's more usage of truffles in France than any other country," he says. "We're gaining increasing acceptance so we see that market widening."
Salter's harvest accounts for 60 per cent of Australia's national crop. But Salter has no idea why the truffles have adapted so well. "Our success has nothing to do with anything we know about. There just seems to be an X factor about this area in Western Australia," he says with a chuckle.