Australian truffle growers harvested three tons of the precious black mushroom last year, in 2011. The production comes mainly from Western Australia. But, from that amount, Australians consume one ton only. The rest is exported to Asia, the United States and even Europe, (Germany and a little to France and Italy). Very impressive.
I did the addition: at the cost of $2.50 per gram, it is an industry which generates a turnover of $7.5 million. This result, however, does not reflect the high financial risk linked with the activity: climate may have a serious impact. But also, unexpectedly, the grower might suffer from a bad harvest which cannot be explained by any cause. “We know very little about truffles, as they don’t grow naturally like in Europe. Here, the conditions are different. The European experience is not relevant. Therefore, unsuccessful years sometimes keep their mystery”.
Wayne Haslam’s production is modest in comparison with the national production. However, the involvement of the grower in the spread of information about truffles is huge. Wayne’s story started late. After his retirement, this civil engineer didn’t want to stay idle. He fearlessly jumped into the planting of oaks in 2003, with no guarantee of getting a return on his investment. He settled on a country property in New South Wales, close to Canberra, and called it the Blue Frog Farm. The name has a meaning. He smiled: “It comes from the song ‘I am in love with a big blue frog’ sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. This is a story between my wife and me, at the time we were flirting. Then, when we bought the house and land, during our first nights here, the frogs living in the pond were so noisy. Instantly we thought about the song!”
He planted his property with 6.5 hectares of oak and hazelnut trees whose roots are inoculated with the mushroom and added 50 tonnes of limestone to the soil so that it reaches the ph necessary to truffles. “Between the tree and the mushroom, there is a symbiotic relationship. The mushroom breaks down minerals useful to the tree to feed on. In return, the tree feeds the truffle with the sugar contained in its sap.”
From the beginning, Wayne Haslam has fought to improve public consciousness about the mushroom. “We have yet to develop a truffle culture,” he admits. To achieve this, he organises the Truffle Festival each year, at the winter solstice, which marks the harvest time. Tastings, truffle hunting and stories are on the program. “I also go to see some chefs, carrying my basket to make them smell the product and convince them to add truffles to their menus.” I longed for my favourite recipe… truffle shaved on a risotto…
When the season comes in June-July, Samson will be on duty. Although some signs of bareness can be detected at the foot of the tree, which show the presence of truffles, humans need help so they don’t dig randomly with little result. And this is when Samson, the Labrador dog, intervenes. “He is trained. It’s a funny time. He puts his paw where there is a truffle and jumps to another tree. You have to run after him, dig deeper and then pick up the mushroom carefully so as not to damage it.”
At Farmer’s Markets during the season, and at the Truffle Festival on the property (from 21th June 2012 to 31st July). Truffles are also sent by mail. Visit the websites.