The accidental truffle farmer who hands out the delicacy for free

Anthony Colangelo
Truffle farmer Kathy Smith and her two pet dogs turned truffle hunters.
Truffle farmer Kathy Smith and her two pet dogs turned truffle hunters.  Photo: Eddie Jim

When Kathy Smith and her husband Alan bought a farm in Gembrook they didn't know anything about truffles, let alone that their new property was full of them.

The couple, who moved to Australia from England 10 years ago, were simply looking to buy land out of the city's hustle and bustle where they could live with their son and his family.

Truffles are worth $2500 a kilo in Australia.
Truffles are worth $2500 a kilo in Australia.  Photo: Ben Groundwater

After moving to the farm in mid-2016, they noticed some information on the property's paperwork that they hadn't seen before buying. It said the soil beneath the farm's 480 hazelnut trees harboured truffles, the fragrant underground fungi beloved by gourmands.

Turns out the previous owners had planted the hazelnut trees and inoculated their roots with the sought after fungi years ago. They'd been harvesting them on-and-off, given they didn't live on the hobby farm year round. 

"We knew nothing about truffles," said Smith. "I had never seen a truffle before. And we actually didn't put two and two together and realise what it all meant."

That's not the case anymore. These days you're likely to see Smith at lunch sharing her buried treasure. 

"I was in a cafe with some friends for a birthday lunch and I took some truffles and a truffle shaver with me and when they ordered lunch they had shaved truffles all over their lunch," she said.

"Then the table next to us, three people sitting there were looking and I said, 'Would you like some?' and we shaved them over their food.

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"I can take it or leave it, to be honest, but I do think there are some dishes truffles go beautifully in, like on scrambled eggs, if you've got them or the money to buy them. There's a certain flavour you can enjoy."

The soil beneath the trees at the property, about an hour south-east of Melbourne, produces white and black truffles for about six weeks across July and August each year.

But first the family with no truffle knowledge or experience had to work out how to extract the fungal delicacies – which sell for $2500 a kilo – from the earth.

A quick Google search directed them to Carlton restaurant Scropi, which has truffles on its menu. So Smith rang them up.

"He [Scropi owner Anthony Scutella] gave us a lot of time and told us a lot about how to harvest them and clean them."

The internet also led Smith to Josh Rea from Sydney fine food specialists Gourmet Life. He flew to Melbourne and took the time to show the truffle novices how to harvest their unexpected bounty.

"At first we used a professional truffle hunter who had their own dogs but we realised our dogs could find the truffles themselves," Smith said.

"I just take them down there for walks and I noticed one of the dogs started gnawing at the ground exactly like the professional truffle hunter's dogs. 

"I have put so little work into training them, it's ridiculous and previous to that the hunter was costing a lot of money."

Smith and her husband harvest six to 10 kilos of truffles a year and hope to produce more truffles in the future.

Most of their truffles go to Scropi, one or two other restaurants, and Gourmet Life in Sydney, with the rest given away to friends. And strangers at cafes, of course.

TRUFFLE FACTS

- The Victorian truffle industry is worth $2 million

- When were truffles first produced in Australia? 1999

- Projected size of Australia's 2019 truffle harvest: 14 tonnes total (one tonne from Victoria, eight tonnes from WA, the rest from other states).

- Annual truffle harvest predicted to quadruple over next decade.

- 40 truffle farmers in Victoria and 300 across Australia.

- 99 per cent of truffles grown in Australia are black, less than 1 per cent are white while the rest are "summer truffles" or burgundy.

- Truffles sell for $2500 a kilo.

- Truffles retail for about $2.50 a gram. Two grams per dish, per person is the recommended serving.

- Where to eat truffle dishes? The Truffle Truck at Queen Victoria Market on regular market days from June 4 to end of August.

Source: Truffle Melbourne