Tasmanians take a run at the truffle market

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.

Garvey has done exhaustive tests to find out the best way to store, pack and send his product. He now believes the best storage temperature is 4 to 5 degrees Celcius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“When I asked the French about the best way to store truffles, they said to just put them in the cellar," he said. "They didn’t really know.”

Another innovation is the use of glass to transport the fungus across long distances.

"Everyone else in the world packs [truffles] in plastic. But I thought, when you go to the supermarket, you put everything else in plastic — except mushrooms. That's where I got the idea to start packing in glass."

At the end of this year’s winter season in Australia, in November — which coincides roughly with the start of the summer season in Europe — Australian truffles were fetching 2,500 Australian dollars per kilogram, while French truffles were selling for 2,100 Australian dollars per kilogram.

Garvey has recently expanded his growing area to parts of the southern states of Victoria and New South Wales.

Culinary historian at the University of Adelaide, Barbara Santich, said the demand for truffles will grow as the international food market expands to take in Asia.

“Even in China, they’re trying to cultivate truffles because they are the status symbols of European culture and valued for that in Asia," Santich said.

“I think it’s worth experimenting and the truffles in Australia have come from very young areas and like vines with wine growing, it might get better in 20 or 30 years. Our conditions are different, our soils are different. So, the people who are putting in the effort to pioneer truffles in Australia are to be congratulated. There is a huge demand for truffles around the world.”

Meanwhile, Garvey continues to sell to some of the most prestigious restaurants in Sydney, Japan and Hong Kong while his domestic retail market grows steadily.

What are his favorite recipes? He quotes the doyenne of mid-20th-century British cookery, Elizabeth David, who was responsible for bringing French and Italian food to U.K. dinner tables. She said, the only limitation to cooking with truffles exists in the imagination of the chef.

Hence, truffle vodka. Pass the shot glass, please.