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Tasmanians take a run at the truffle market

A small Australian state is punching above its weight in international culinary circles with its version of the prized French black truffle.

GOLD COAST, Australia — Ever fancied a glass of black truffle vodka after dinner? The mere thought might make a Frenchman quiver with fright, but it takes more than tradition to scare an Australian foodie.

Down Under’s very own fledgling — and booming — truffle industry, based mainly on the temperate, southern isle of Tasmania, is now fetching 400 Australian dollars more per kilogram for its product in fashionable restaurants in Hong Kong and Japan than are its French competitors.

Most of the success of growers of French black truffles in Australia can be attributed to the same methodical approach that the country’s wine growers adopted many years ago — take one large portion of tradition and improve on it by adding a healthy pinch of science.

It’s been 10 years since a handful of daring Aussies decided to take on one of the world’s most elite and established food cultivating industries in northern Europe.

The French black truffle is the fruiting body of the fungus Tuber Melanosporum, and an international foodie status symbol alongside foie gras, caviar, saffron and fine wine. The delicacy is prized for its rich, pungent aroma and taste. As in the Dordogne region of France, truffles in Australia grow about 10 inches below the soil, usually around the base of oak trees, and dogs are used to sniff them out.

A few shavings of truffle can transform a bowl of pasta from a Tuesday night quick dinner into haute cuisine.

Truffles usually grow around the base of oak trees, and dogs are used to sniff them out.

Intriguingly, much of the reason for the flourishing of growers such as Perigord Truffles of Tasmania is a burgeoning retail market. Housebound cooks can go online or telephone to order a truffle for their Saturday evening dinner party. The truffles are packed in a glass container, surrounded by a specially designed ice crystal pack to keep it at the optimum temperature for travel, and sent by express post to grateful amateur chefs around the country.

Back when they began in 1999, the French were aghast, says co-chairman of Perigord Truffles of Tasmania, Duncan Garvey.

“Initially, the French said we couldn’t do it, but then again, they said that about wine. We’re trying to take the mystique out of the industry.”

Cool and laid-back he may sound, but this is a man who takes his trade very seriously and closely guards his secret truffle recipes, such as the one for vodka, which he plans to launch into the market next year. He has also made many long trips to France over a number of years to hone his craft and meticulously attempt to improve on tradition.

Ordinarily truffles do not travel well, tending to lose their aroma and pungency on long journeys. So how do growers in remote locations like Tasmania compete internationally? That’s where the science comes in.