Nothing But Truffle
The snappy winter cold in Tasmania doesn't always get the thanks it deserves. For starters it's a good excuse for a night in front of the fire. But it's also the perfect environment for growing the rare and elusive truffle – a subterranean fungus with an ancient gourmet lineage, also known to French enthusiasts as "le diamant de la cuisine", the diamond of the kitchen.
As far as truffle growing goes, chilly weather is only a start. The right soil, trees, spores and no shortage of other elements are needed to get these fungal delights materialising underground – and often the tuber just doesn't cooperate. As such it's no surprise that truffles can fetch as much as $3,000 a kilogram. Farming them is tough and sometimes nail-biting work, but thanks to a handful of enterprising souls Tasmania's trufferies are edging in on international fungus turf.
Perigord Truffles of Tasmania got the industry going in 1993 when they inoculated seedling roots with the spores of truffles important from France. After that, Perigord founders Duncan Garvey and Peter Cooper had to wait six tense years before the first Australian-grown French black truffle popped up among the tree roots in their Askrigg plantation. Nowadays Perigord sells all sorts of truffle delicacies including truffle salt, butter and honey. Understandably protective of their wares, they ship their frozen truffles in glass containers packed inside foam-padded polystyrene boxes, with small ice packs included to keep the temperature consistent.
At nearby Truffles Australis, Tim Terry tried a different tack back in 2008. Tired of trying to replicate the French soil that truffles seem to enjoy, he worked on a new formula that's proved promising. The details of the soil mix are kept tightly under wraps but, surprisingly, fish oil is definitely involved. Whatever else the concoction contains it's working, because truffles are now cropping up all over Terry's Needlesdale and Askrigg plantations near Deloraine. From there they find their way to kitchens across Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and the US.
Literally rarer than gold – only 150 tonnes a year are unearthed around the world – truffles can be just as hard to find as they are to grow. In France, pigs have traditionally been employed to sniff them out – but Tasmanian truffle farmers use dogs. At Tamar Valley Truffles the farm team includes celebrity hound Jaffa, who once met Tetsuya Wakuda but usually spends the winter harvest season nosing among the property's 3000 oak trees.
Launceston's Tasmanian Truffle Festival is good news for those without magic soil, saintly patience or epicurean hounds. Running throughout July, the annual event includes degustation dinners, cooking classes and harvesting workshops – even 'Truffle Weekends' for the seriously keen.
If they're not in the importing business (and as long as they have directions to the Harvest Farmers Market in the Cimitiere Street carpark) Europeans missing truffles during the northern hemisphere off-season can now solve their problems with a quick flight to Launceston.