It’s long been associated with southern Europe, but the underground mushroom that is the truffle is finding a home on the other side of the world.
Australia now lays claim to being the fourth largest black Perigord truffle producer in the world behind the Spanish, French and Italians.
One West Australian truffiere, truffle orchard, believes it will produce about eight tonnes this year.
With top truffles selling for more than $1000 a kilo, that’s a good cash crop, but it’s not been all smooth sailing for this relatively young industry.
In preparing my television report for SBS World News, I heard tales of underhandedness, embarrassment and conflicting science.
The Europeans seem far worse with elderly couples robbed at gunpoint for their truffles and specially trained dogs that will not only sniff out truffles on someone else’s property, but bring them back to their thieving owners waiting up the road.
But when it came to the Australian truffle, our once revered “have-a-go” attitude seems slightly lacking.
Tell ‘em they’re dreaming
When one of the first truffieres began in Manjimup in Western Australia’s south west region, the proponents were told they were mad, despite one of Australia’s foremost truffle experts being onboard.
Then when the first truffle was discovered on the property in 2003, the scuttlebutt quickly began: they actually imported it from Tasmania and planted it there.
But Manjimup and nearby Pemberton have now made it - the region is like the Margaret River or Barossa Valley of truffles.
Then other West Australian regions thought they would have a go.
Oh, how the Manjimup folk scoffed at them, deriding their Mundaring truffle festival.
But those truffle producers are sticking at it.
Although one French chef who planted more than a thousand trees in Toodyay east of Perth wishes he’d just gone to Manjimup.
Ten years later and he’s had one truffle. Much further south and it could have been hundreds. But, c’est la vie.
And then there’s been the price.
One buyer was telling producers just before the season began - roughly May to September - that he could only offer around $700 a kilo.
He was later seen trying to sell them for more than $2000 a kilo.
I’m told his bridges are well and truly burnt.
Then there’s the white truffle – only found in the wild, but some producers think that if they’ve cultivated the black Perigord in Australia, then why not the white.
But try to get some of those brave souls on camera and they’ll mumble they’d rather just keep their heads down for now: “But if we get the first white truffle, you’ll be the first person I tell!”
With prices ranging from $3000 per kilo to $330,000 for certain white truffles, I’m sure he’ll be telling a lot of people. Probably the bank manager first.
For now they wait. The naysayers say it’ll take 40 years. The trailblazers are hoping for the next few years.
All above board
But the Australian industry at least does business on the books.
One of Western Australia’s more well-known French chefs told me a story of an elderly couple robbed at gun point for the 70 kilos of truffles they had in their car after visiting the truffle market in France.
A market where all the deals are done in cash – millions of euros worth – and the police stroll around with machine guns to keep the peace.
The French chef laughed that if the thieves had waited, they would have got 200 kilos of truffles.
Better to be an educated thief than an impatient one.
Finally, the science of the pungent underground mushroom.
Over 450 million years, the hazelnut and oak trees have developed a symbiotic relationship with the fungus. It takes nutrients out of soil particles for the tree and the tree gives it sugars for its fruit body.
Some scientists say the truffle is still a mystery; others say that sure there are a few things they don’t know, but if Western Australia’s yields are any indication, we know how to grow them and keep them growing.
It’s just good management – irrigation, right fertilizer, looking after the tree and keeping an eye on things.
One WA truffiere reportedly is producing one kilo per tree and they’ve got 1000 trees. A possible world record.
Instant millionaires – after many, many years of waiting.