SLOW Food Shoalhaven went on a different and enjoyable educational outing recently, searching for truffles.
Slow Food is a worldwide movement focused on encouraging links between growers, chefs and responsible eating practices.
The group encourages good, clean and fair foods, sourced close to home, so its members were understandably keen to experience these local rare delicacies.
Truffles are one of the more exotic and intriguing foods, selling for about $2200 per kilogram.
TAFE Illawarra was asked to choose its most outstanding third year trainee chef to accompany Slow Food Shoalhaven on this exciting excursion, and the lucky student was Rebecca Dendy of Falls Creek.
This was an excellent opportunity for Bec to get her hands dirty and join Slow Food Shoalhaven members and a few local chefs on a special day.
Slow Food Shoalhaven hopes to be able to offer this as an annual prize.
There are over 160 registered commercial truffle growers in Australia, but due to the vagaries of this crop not many are actually producing truffles.
Most of Australia’s successful truffle farms are in South Western Australia, but the group was in luck.
A truffle hunt was organised at Terra Preta Truffles, located not far from Braidwood.
Terra Preta is one of the few successful truffle farms in NSW, supplying the local market and exporting to the USA, France and Italy.
The farm is owned and operated by Peter and Kate Marshall and their children Keith, Gus and Rita.
It took the Marshalls eight years growing oaks and hazelnuts before they produced their first truffles.
They are ably assisted by the stars of the show, truffle dogs Sal and Shadow.
Sal is a specially trained truffle dog while Shadow has been trained by Rita and, from what the group saw, is doing quite well. Sal is just a little more refined about it, calmly tapping the ground with her right paw to indicate the treasure buried below.
Black or perigord truffles are a fungus (Tuber melanosporum) and grow under the ground as a result of a symbiotic relationship with the roots of particular trees (such as oaks and hazelnuts) infected with the appropriate mycorrhiza (literally, fungus root).
While they were originally confined to the wild, the past century has seen considerable research, particularly in France, into cultivating them as a domestic crop.
The truffles form in late summer and slowly mature during autumn and are ready to harvest in winter.
They generally grow in free draining poor quality soils – something we have a lot of in Australia.
Australia produces truffles in winter, and complement rather than compete with the European farmers.
This lack of direct competition has led to a lot of collaboration between local and overseas truffle growers, perhaps a measure of how difficult it is to be a successful truffle grower.
“It's really quite charming. We were worried that the French would be offended by their national product coming from somewhere else, but they've been really sweet about it,” Mr Marshall said.
There were some surprises though.
“They like the nose, the flavour, the aroma - and they're a little bit freaked out by the size of some of the big ones we sent,” he added.
Terra Preta has not quite managed a truffle weighing a kilogram but it is working on it.
For information on Slow Food Shoalhaven please contact John Olsen 4455 1837.