YOU get the feeling when talking to Peter Marshall that you've entered a more mysterious world, closer to the folkloric intrigue of the French truffle forests than we've come before.
Marshall has an unusually large truffiere near Braidwood: 30 hectares of trees, whose prized underground harvest is whisked to the restaurants of France, from ground to table in just two days, barely having seen the light of day in Australia.
Last month, he found the first truffle of the season, destined for a "thousand-dollar omelet". It was followed quickly by more, including a 380 gram monster that was flown to Paris. He still remembers his first truffle, two years ago. "There were screams of joy and excitement," he says. "It's such a leap of faith and it all goes on underground so you just haven't got a clue until the day. It's like hunting for gold."
Truffles, a fungus that grows on the roots of oak and hazelnut trees and ripens with a characteristic heady aroma when freezing weather hits, are known as black gold. When Marshall refers to truffles in this way, the association is closer to home. His father and grandfather were goldminers near Bathurst, and Marshall believes they "hunted for the excitement, not the money".
Like most truffle enthusiasts, he struggles to put the allure into words.
"They're just unique, they taste like themselves. They've got this extraordinary long-term aroma, it's an aroma rather than a taste, and it sits with you in your palate for ages and you can actually remember it. Two weeks later you'll have a memory of the aroma, and it comes back - like a flashback."
One of the key aroma compounds in truffles is dimethyl sulphide, which Marshall says is also produced by algae, and contributes to the formation of rain clouds. This might explain a kind of seaweedy association of truffles, which contain a natural glutamate, like seaweed.
Marshall has plans for his truffiere, about 90 kilometres east of Canberra, not all of which he's prepared to share. But he does reveal that he has planted trees infected with the spores of bianchetto white truffles, and expects them to be producing truffles for export in a year or two. This isn't the most famous Italian white truffle - the bianchetto is smaller - but few Australian and New Zealand growers have attempted to go beyond the French black Perigord truffles. If Marshall succeeds, he will have access to the Italian market, as well as the French.
Marshall doesn't need the glare of publicity in Australia because he has a broker in France. Perhaps this is why we've heard less of him and his maturing and expanding truffiere than we have of other local growers.
It's a high-stakes industry, with top-graded truffles fetching $3000 a kilogram. Marshall started with 600 trees and now has more than 6000, in a truffiere whose exact location he is reluctant to reveal.
This is not so much for fear of poachers, a big problem in France and Italy. But poachers wouldn't be able to find a truffle without specially trained dogs, or sell a truffle without a market, so the more immediate problem is damage to the truffiere.
Marshall says too much walking on the land can damage the maturing fungus underground. He uses low-ground-pressure Italian tractors so he doesn't crush the soil.
Nor will Marshall say how many truffles he is finding - only that they are in "satisfying amounts".
Australian Truffle Growers Association president Wayne Haslam is more willing to share his secrets. Haslam, who has four hectares at Sutton, north-east of Canberra, had his first three-kilogram harvest two years ago. Last year, he found six kilograms, and he is hoping for eight kilograms or more this year. A mature truffiere can produce 40 kilograms of truffles a hectare. "But it's like all agricultural pursuits," he says. "You're relying on the weather and whether you've got your soil right."
Haslam says Australia's truffles are world class, but the hard part is establishing a truffle culture here. So far, it's an export crop, especially into Asia, but also North America and Europe. Australian consumption is probably less than 500 kilograms a year, he says.
Truffles have a long history in France and Italy. Their fame is tied to their pungency, which dominates the dish. That's why truffles are usually served simply, classically with scrambled eggs or risotto.
Nationally, the biggest players are Truffle Australis in Tasmania, Western Australia's Wine and Truffle Company, whose truffles are on the menu of California's famed French Laundry restaurant, and Perigord Truffles of Tasmania, which has growers in Tasmania and the mainland. But there are perhaps 130 small growers, and new players are joining the ranks all the time.
Haslam estimates Australia will produce about 1.5 tonnes this season, more than two-thirds of it from WA. Tasmania will produce about 250 kilograms, and the more recently planted truffieres in Victoria and NSW about 150 kilograms combined.
Many of the smaller players are after a commercial return, but some are hobbyists. As a hobby, it's not cheap. A truffiere costs about $30,000 a hectare to establish, including fencing to keep out animals. In Tasmania, potoroos have been a headache, and in parts of NSW, growers have had trouble with bandicoots. In Braidwood, wombats are showing an interest. Haslam says he was alarmed to find foxes digging in his plantation, but it seems they were after mice, not truffles.
Canberra will host its first truffle festival this month, the Capital Country Truffle Festival, and will fly in chefs, growers and experts to celebrate the fungus. Part of the program is a competition to pick the best truffle from Tasmania, WA, Victoria and NSW and Canberra, and possibly New Zealand. Hotel Realm executive chef Anthony Fullerton says organisers are expecting to use up to five kilograms of truffles during the weekend. Tim Terry, of Truffles Australis, will be among the big growers in Canberra for the event.
"When we first started this in 1994, they thought we were mad," he says. "Then when we started to grow truffles, they thought he's not quite so mad. And now we've got that down to a reasonably fine art . . . all those sceptics are coming out of the woodwork and saying we'd like to put a hectare of these as a good superannuation policy. The sceptics are jumping off the fence, and they're ready to jump in and have a lash at it."
The Capital Country Truffle Festival begins on Saturday.
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