Cold gold: chilly Australian winter yields bumper truffle crop

The coldest winter in 30 years in New South Wales has been good news for truffle farmers. Naomi Locke follows her nose

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 August, 2015, 12:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 August, 2015, 12:46am

Our hearts are pumping. The dogs are almost shaking with excitement. They're ready to hunt. With a well rehearsed cue from their handler, they set off and it doesn't take them long to pick up the intoxicating scent of Perigord black truffles.

"It's much easier with dogs than pigs," says Kate Marshall, owner of Terra Preta Truffles and also our guide for the hunt.

"You see, pigs want to eat the truffles, while the dogs are easier to train, so the decision between the two is just easy," she says as she feeds the dogs a quick treat.

Marshall then gingerly digs around the area where her trusty Labrador, Sal, indicated where the precious fungi is. It doesn't take her long to find one, in fact, it's barely an inch beneath the soil.

"Here, you can help me dig this one," Marshall says as she hands us a slender shovel. We're surprised tourists are allowed to get so close to the truffles, given that they fetch at least HK$1,600 per 100 grams. "Just be gentle and it'll be fine," Marshall reassures us. And as we carefully etch away at the soil, the unmistakable aroma of black truffle permeates the air.

When cold months hit Australia and it's summer in the northern hemisphere, the country is a prime supplier of truffles to Europe, Asia and North America. A by-product of this industry is truffle hunting. It gives city folk a chance to escape to the countryside and, of course, it means a sumptuous meal at the end of the day. "People just plain love the experience, and for us in Braidwood, it brings tourists to our historic town," Peter Marshall, Kate's husband, says. He's the other half of Terra Preta, looking after the forest while his wife looks after the tourists.

"It also gives me a chance to speak about the importance of mycorrhizal fungi in relation to the health of forests."

An experienced forester, Peter knows the dangers of introducing unknown variables such as out-of-town visitors into his fields. "We are scared of people introducing fungal diseases on their shoes. So we wash all footwear before they start the hunt and scrub their shoes in lye before they step foot onto the farm - just in case."

Fears of contamination aside, the hunts are good business for the local industry. "It is a lot of work for us during the busiest time of the year. That's why next year we'll need to put on staff. Which again, is good for the town's economy."

A typical hunt, costing A$160 (HK$915), starts with a light snack, such as truffle-infused brie or melted cheese sandwiches. The group is then led into the truffle field where trees are surrounded by the signature "brule"- the circular area of dead grass surrounding the tree trunk caused by the truffles emitting compounds that act as herbicides. For an hour or so people have fun following the dogs, getting down on their hands and knees to dig and collecting a bucket full of truffles. Time flew by for us, and in less than an hour we had gathered more than 20 heads of the coveted fungi. In good spirits, we headed back to town for lunch.

It's only been a few years since the Marshalls started truffle hunting tours on their farm and, as the operation has become more organised, the lunches have become more extravagant. For the most recent hunt, lunch was held inside an old cider house, where a multicourse menu was served featuring droolworthy items such as scallop and truffle pie.

Terra Preta is joining hands with neighbour and friend Antony Davies of Millpond Farm for an even bigger project. On the Millpond property sits a three-storey millhouse that was previously a flour mill. Davies - an expert antique restorer - is hard at work converting the vintage building into a guest house. Peter tells us that they're planning on ending the hunt at the picturesque location once it's been refurbished. They will also ask chefs from around the region to make guest appearances and treat diners to a truly special truffle menu.

To continue the experience, visitors also have the option to buy the truffles they helped find at a wholesale price, but there's no pressure. As much as we enjoyed ourselves at Braidwood, it is by no means the only town offering truffle experiences. There are plenty of farms throughout New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia that are open to the public for truffle hunting tours from June to August, although finer points such as price and level of involvement in the actual harvesting may vary.

Where to find truffles in Australia

Terra Preta Truffles (Canberra) (Melbourne) (Oberon, New South Wales) (Manjimup, Western Australia) (Deloraine, Tasmania)