Wicked and delicious: truffles warm up the Aussie winter
Pioneering a new kind of crop has its challenges, just ask Noel Fitzpatrick of Truffle Harvest in Gippsland.
“When the industry was young, and everyone was learning, there were lots of things that weren’t done well,” Fitzpatrick admits. “In Europe that the soils are a very high PH, so what we thought we needed to do is just get the soils up to that PH, by spreading vast amounts of fine lime. That’s what we did, because that’s what we were instructed to do. In places like this, where the soil is much heavier, it’s been a real struggle. What’s happened is you produce truffles, and because the soil is so heavy and wet, a lot of them are rotten.”
A horticulturalist by trade, with a background in hospitality, Fitzpatrick had bought a nine-acre farm just outside of Jumbunna in South-West Gippsland. Then, while on a flight back from Italy, he happened across an article about a Tasmanian truffle farmer, which sent him on his ten-year quest to grow the elusive mushroom.
A decade later, about an hour and a half outside of Melbourne, on the crest of an undulating hill, there’s now a small grove of French Oak trees. Picturesque, to be certain, but underneath the silver-green trees: in the dark, loamy earth, there’s a truffle quietly blooming.
“Three years ago, and we were putting a dog over the paddock for probably the first time. We started right over in the far corner and worked our way back. We hadn’t found anything, and we were getting to the third last row, and I thought there’s clearly going to be nothing this year,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “Then the dog was off the lead, and he’d just got a scent, and stuck his head up in the air, and raced off. There was no stopping him. He raced straight over to a tree in this patch over here, where we hadn’t been yet, and straight to a truffle.”
Making the most of a short season
Truffles are entirely seasonal, with the peak season lasting only eight weeks from late June into August and Fitzpatrick believes this is no small part of the truffle’s appeal. “That seasonality, it’s a bit special, really,” he says. “Like wine, there are nuances in truffles because of the terroir,” he says. “The bacteria in the soil is responsible for about 30 per cent of the aroma of the truffle. It’s quite interesting that you can harvest truffle from the same truffière, and ten truffles will have ten different aromas.”
For his part, Fitzpatrick’s been improving his own truffière, improving the soils to give the tiny truffle room to push through the earth. “If you think about a truffle like a potato,” he explains. “It starts out tiny little membrane, it’s got to push out into this very loose, open soil that drains well, and that’s got a lot of air in it.”
Fitzpatrick believes that when it comes to enjoying truffles, simple is best: “A wheel of brie sliced in half with a gram of truffle in it, closed up and put back in the fridge for a few days, is marvellous,” Fitzpatrick suggests. “Or I just make a nice creamy truffle sauce in a pan, and cook some favourite pasta and turn it through it. I make sure everything is totally coated in that sauce, and it’s a bit decadent and wicked, but it’s just delicious.”