Truffles – valuable fungi underfoot

25/06/2009 - 00:00


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Down south the dogs are howling. It must be truffle time. Russell Quinn reports on an emerging niche industry.

Truffles – valuable fungi underfoot

WHILE many Western Australians seek refuge from the rain, cold and howling winds of winter, one agricultural industry is ramping up for its busiest time of year.

Harvesting of this year's crop of the precious fungi got under way earlier this month, the start of a demanding three-month process involving the careful use of specially trained sniffer dogs and their truffle-hunting handlers.

Home to most of the state's trufferies (orchards) are the lush, rolling hills of Manjimup, the country's largest producer of truffles by volume, about four hours south-west of Perth.

One of the leading growers in the region, and in Australia, is The Wine & Truffle Co located at Hazel Hill, which was established in 1997 by about 20 investors under a managed investment scheme structure.

Wine & Truffle Co managing director Wally Edwards says early investors followed the company's passionate mycologist, or truffle boffin, Nicholas Malajczuk, as well as their own sense of adventure in supporting the venture.

"It (MIS) allowed us to raise capital ... you've got to raise capital up front or you have to have a ongoing revenue stream that can offset the negative cash flow while you're waiting 10 years to become viable," Mr Edwards told Business Class.

"We knew that when we went in, it was understood that maybe we'd never grow a truffle."

But the market value of truffles, currently between $2,500 and $3,000 per kilogram, was too lucrative to ignore.

The company expects to produce 960 kilograms of truffles this year from its 13,000 hazelnut and oak trees, a 58 per cent production increase on last year's 608 kilograms, and a marked difference from their maiden harvest in 2003, which yielded a single truffle weighing 168 grams.

As harvests improve, so do the company's marketing efforts, as illustrated by its second annual Manjimup truffle affair and long table lunch a few weeks ago, which included a formal 'Welcoming of the Truffle' ceremony the company hopes will become a tradition.

Mr Edwards is currently developing another truffle property up the road from Hazel Hill called Oak Valley, with Watershed Premium Wines managing director Geoff Barrett at the helm.

"Hazel Hill Pty Ltd, which is Wine and Truffle Co, is a 10 per cent shareholder in the management company at Oak Valley, and we have an agreement between the two companies to share research and development results," Mr Edwards says.

Oak Valley managing director Geoff Barrett explains that, last August, two years after planting, the company's MIS structure changed to a straight capital investment organisation focused on attracting superannuation dollars from high net worth individuals.

"We've entered into a heads of agreement whereby we'll form an entity that will be responsible for the sale and distribution of truffles from both properties, utilising the distribution network built up over 10 years by Hazel Hill," Mr Barrett says.

While Oak Valley is not yet producing truffles, Mr Barrett believes this agreement is a huge advantage considering the logistical challenge to get the delicate product to domestic and international markets.

Mr Edwards says a partnership with Toll has ensured truffles travel daily from Manjimup in the evening, arriving in the eastern states first thing the next morning.

"The easy locations are Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan as they're all direct flights out of Perth and we can time the harvesting to meet the flight time so that they're leaving as fresh as possible," he says.

And Mr Edwards is encouraging of other operators entering the local market.

"Hopefully we can work with people who are growing truffles and help them sell truffle overseas, as the vast percentage in the end will have to be exported," he told Business Class.

One such competing neighbour is Manjimup Truffles owner Al Blakers, who managed the Wine and Truffle Co for about a year before parting ways to develop his own 6.8 hectares, and almost 4,000 trees, at the end of 1997.

"Last year we harvested about 400 kilograms of truffles and this year we anticipate about 600 kilograms, and that's only from six acres [2.4ha], which are currently being harvested in the trufferie," Mr Blakers says.

"We make a world-class truffle so we don't have to sell it, we can choose who we sell to.

"It'll probably be about two to three years before our truffles will be the 'Rolls Royce' of truffles.

"It's based on the maturity of the trees, much like wine, where the older the vine, the better the wine."

One of the nation's largest truffle consumers is proprietor and head chef of The Loosebox, Alain Fabregues, who has invested about $200,000 in a five-kilometre planting of (inoculated) trees on his 16ha Toodyay farm.

Just last week Mr Fabregues used about 28 kilograms of truffle at the restaurant.

With his restautant located in Mundaring, Mr Fabregeus is a feature of the annual Mundaring Truffle Festival held over the second weekend of August.

The event is complemented by other truffle-based excursions including a day tour organised by Matters of Taste cooking school, and a number of truffle degustation dinners around town, including one at The Gala Restaurant and another at Restaurant Amuse.


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