New-found kitchen confidence increases Victorian truffle demand

Black Cat Truffles owner Kristen Simpson with dogs Winston and Lottie.
Black Cat Truffles owner Kristen Simpson with dogs Winston and Lottie. Photo: Simon Schluter

For the past decade Australian truffles have enjoyed a growing popularity among the country's top chefs, enhancing risottos, infusing eggs and adding a surcharge to lobster rolls, custard tarts and everything in between. 

As Victoria emerges from the coronavirus crisis, home cooks are now seeking truffles with a heightened fervour too.

Fresh truffles found by Narla the labrador at Black Cat truffiere.
Fresh truffles found by Narla the labrador at Black Cat truffiere. Photo: Simon Schluter

"Through our online store and pop-up at Queen Victoria Market, we've found consumer demand for Australian truffles has almost tripled compared to this time last year," says Nigel Wood, founder and director of Truffle Melbourne, the largest truffle festival outside Europe.

"I think it's because more people have learned how to cook while in isolation. The feedback we're getting from customers is that they feel more confident in the kitchen and want to try new things."

Gavin Booth, owner of Australian Truffle Traders based in Manjimup, Western Australia, also says more local consumers are buying his truffles compared to previous years. 

Chef Mark Best (left) and Australian Truffle Traders' Gavin Booth in Manjimup, Western Australia.
Chef Mark Best (left) and Australian Truffle Traders' Gavin Booth in Manjimup, Western Australia. Photo: Jessica Wyld

"It could be a result of more people spending time at home, and having the extra hours to plan meals they really look forward to."

Depending on a season's haul, Australia has become the third or fourth largest truffle-growing country in the world since the first domestic truffle orchards were established in the 1990s.

"We're not only a big truffle producer, we're also becoming big truffle consumers," says Wood. 

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"People are now combining Victorian and Western Australian truffles in the same order so they can experience the differences in taste profile across truffle terroir. Like wild mushrooms and summer tomatoes, truffles have become a seasonal food people hang out for all year."

Harvested from early June to September, truffles have an earthy flavour and intense forest-floor aroma. The black truffle (tuber melanosporum) is the most commonly harvested truffle in Australia, grown in the soil underneath a host tree it develops a symbiotic relationship with. 

"Truffle production requires a massive amount of time and labour," says Booth. "A truffle orchard doesn't become commercially viable until at least 10 years after inoculation and can only be pruned by hand so heavy machinery doesn't compact the soil." 

Cutler & Co's hand-rolled pasta with shaved black truffle.
Cutler & Co's hand-rolled pasta with shaved black truffle. Photo: Simon Shiff

Truffles are traditionally priced higher than most other agricultural products because of the meticulous methods of growing, harvesting and cleaning required to produce the mushroom relative.

Training a dog to find ripe truffles is also a lengthy process. Although any breed is capable of becoming a trained truffle-sniffer, the individual dog must have a patient disposition and desire to hunt and dig.

"It can take up to four years to train a dog to correctly sniff truffles," says Kristen Simpson, who bought Black Cat truffiere near Ballarat with her husband Tom Eadie in October. 

"The previous truffiere owners have been kind enough to let us work with their beautiful labrador Narla until our puppies are properly trained. There's Lottie the lagotto and Winston, the Australian shepherd. Both are seven-months-old and showing great potential as truffle dogs."

Wood, who also owns the Truffle Paddock farm in Gippsland, says his truffle prices for the new season will remain similar to last winter. 

"Our first class whole truffle is $2.50 a gram, while a 'home chef's' grade truffle is $2 for the same amount. The home chef's truffle still has a beautiful aroma, it has just been pre-cut and better suited for sauces and providing background flavour." 

To make a "really truffly" risotto, Wood recommends around five grams of truffle per person.

"Other dishes may require only three grams, however. A little bit of truffle goes a long way."

The thrill of the hunt

Truffle Melbourne is now its seventh consecutive year, however social distancing restrictions means many cooking demonstrations and classes will be streamed online when the full program kicks off in July. 

Group truffle hunts are still happening around Victoria though, and can be booked through the festival's website. "If last week's truffle harvest is anything to go by, this season is going to be a ripper," says Wood. All truffieres will let guests buy fresh truffles after the hunt. 

Truffle Paddock

Join sniffer dogs Forrest and Comet for a morning hunt at Wood's own truffle orchard in Grantville. $120, includes champagne and wheel of truffled brie to take home.

Black Cat Truffles

Narla the labrador leads a hunt with Creswick State Forest on the horizon and truffle dogs in-training close behind her. $120, includes champagne and a tasting of six truffle-based dishes including wood-fired truffle pizza.

Red Hill Truffles

Jenny McAuley and truffle dog Thomas host a hunt through oak and hazelnut trees in Mornington Peninsula. $120 with the option of a two-course lunch on selected days.

Truffle Treasures

A truffiere near Daylesford home to sibling sniffer dogs Abbie and Holly. $118, includes cauliflower soup finished with truffle, crusty bread with truffle butter, and truffle-infused chocolate custard tart.

The Truffle House

Selling truffles since 2005, this South Gippsland farm has converted an old dairy shed into a space for celebrating the bulbous black diamond. $169, includes a variety of truffle dishes and choice of wine.