Growing Truffles in Australia
Studying the relationships between plants and the soil has reaped some benefits in the commercial world. And one winner is Al Blakers - Australia's first truffle farmer. Truffles are a highly prized food delicacy, but they're very hard to farm: sapling trees need to be inoculated with the fungus when they're young. This sets up what's known as a mycorrhizal relationship between the two. The fungus brings nutrients to the tree, and the tree roots feed the fungus sugars in return. The fungus fruits by producing buried, golf-ball sized structures full of spores, otherwise known as truffles. Chris Smith went along to see how Al does it at Manjimup Truffles in the southwest corner of Western Australia...
Al - They’re the fruiting body of the mycorhizzal fungus. Now, every plant in the world's objective is to reproduce – this is what that’s about. We’ve just learned to manage it and grow it in a fashion where it’s a viable industry.
Chris - Those would sit just below the surface of the soil then? What, attached to the root of the plant that had grown them?
Al - Every truffle is attached to the plant. Usually you’ll find a fine root; sometimes they have totally grown around the root - you actually harvest them and they’ve got a root sticking out each side!
Chris - Can we try a bit?
Al - Yes.
Chris - They’re about the size of a walnut – give or take aren’t they? How much do you think that weighs?
Al - These are small ones. That one there’s probably 8 to 10 grams.
Chris - How would you describe that flavour? It’s a sort of; it’s a subtle flavour. It’s nutty; its nice.
Al - Oh yes. It’s a brilliant flavour; everybody’s got their own comment. A lot of them say "seafoody". I say "earthy, nutty" you know, but everybody’s got a different take on it.
Chris - And these are truffles from Europe? They’re a strain from Europe that you have established here in Southwestern Australia?
Al - Yep. There the Perigord truffle. They're the one from the Perigord region in Europe. We’ve had DNA done and we’ve actually got a nice mix of truffle here, actually of quite a few different strains. We thought we had one pure strain but it turns out we don’t.
Chris - How did you get them here?
Al - Ah yes. Well. We don’t talk about that...
Chris - Suffices to say then, you got the truffles here in the first place! And what about the trees you’re growing them on?
Al - Ah well, we collected seed of every known hazelnut and oak tree we knew in the state. That’s where we started from. We had a lot of heartache here in the first few years, learning how to germinate the hazelnut tree. It’s a little bit tricky to grow that is on a tree and we got that figured, and the Oak trees, well, we weren’t sure what Oaks to use so we used every one we could find. As it turns out there are only three or four oaks that are suitable and that’s what we use now. We’ve learnt a lot in twenty years.
Chris - Why did you need to grow them from seed?
Al - You can inoculate and get the fungi onto it when it’s a very small plant. The bigger the plant the more it’s costing.
Chris - Right. So you had to start with a seedling and you establish the relationship with the truffle-producing fungus as a seedling in your nursery? Is that what you’re saying?
Al - Yes.
Chris - You plant those trees out onto the land here. How long between the sapling going in the ground and then you beginning to get truffles off its roots?
Al - Well, we have seen it in 5 years, but about year 7 or 8 you start to get some decent production. Once it kicks off it usually quadruples each year. So if you get 400 grams, you’ll get 1.6 kilos and you know it goes, and goes, and goes into about year 12/13 and then it sort of starts to steady. We are getting into a stage now where we’re trying different techniques to keep the trees highly productive – that’s the next big challenge.
Chris - How do you get the truffles out of the ground? How do you find them?
Al - I just use the dog there.
Chris - Not pigs? Because in Europe they us pigs don’t they?
Al - Yes, but I like my fingers!
Chris - What do you mean?
Al - Pigs want to eat the truffle. The dog hasn’t got the slightest interest in eating the truffle, he just wants a treat off you. That’s why my dogs are fat!
Chris - I did see some rather large labs… they look like Labradors. Are they Labradors?
Al - Yes, they’re labs.
Chris - You train them to go and sniff out the truffles?
Al - Yes, that’s their job. Twice a day they go out and sniff around and then they get nine months off.
Chris - And then you reward them every time they find one, which would explain why they are quite rotund. That one we saw earlier was quite big.
Al - Ah, he’s just a big boy – a bit like the owner!
Chris - Do you weigh the dog at the end of the season to tell how many truffles you’ve found because, presumably, the scale of the size of the dog is proportional to how many treats he’s had?
Al - I just check the book!
Chris - We’ve just sat here and cut some slices off and eaten then though. Does it not feel to you a bit like you’re sort of eating 20 dollar notes, because they’re quite expensive aren’t they?
Al - Ah, they’re only 5 dollar notes, but yes you get over it – eventually.
Chris - Do you end up… because you’ve got a huge basket of the here? Do you end up having a truffle for tea or are you sick of them now? Do you eat them?
Al - Occasionally.
Chris - When should you put truffle in with your recipes?
Al - You never cook truffle; you add truffle after the cooking’s done.
Chris - Because we’ve been eating these raw. Is that the best way in your view?
Al - The best way to eat it is to make a truffle butter. Chop it up in little pieces, nearly melt down some unsalted butter and put the truffle through it and let it set and just drop it on top of the steak. I reckon that’s the best way in the world to eat it.
Kat - Oh God, that sound absolutely amazing. That’s truffle farmer, Al Blakers. So Chris, did you bring back any truffles?
Chris - A bit of a confession, Kat. It’s actually quite tricky to move these things internationally you see so, as Al gave me all the truffles we dug up that morning, I had this bag full of them; and there was about £300 worth of truffles in this bag. I was driving back from Manjimup towards Perth and I went past this extremely nice looking winery called St. Aidans, in the Ferguson Valley. It’s run by a guy who’s an anaesthetist called Phil Smith, and he makes exceedingly nice wine, and I just found myself accidently trading him my bag of truffles for lunch in his winery at St. Aidans and some rather nice wine. So "no" is the answer!