“The truffle growing capital of the world!” – it has a nice ring to it
Growing truffles is a tricky yet rewarding business, just ask Borry Gartrell and his wife Gaye Stewart-Nairn of Borrodell, home to the Australian mainland’s oldest truffle trees.
Truffles, prized for their complex aroma and flavour, are a fungi that grows in a symbiotic relationship on the roots of oak or hazelnut trees. Foraged naturally in Europe, farming truffles has become a growing agricultural enterprise around the world in order to meet the voracious culinary demand.
The first ‘truffery’ here in Australia (although a lot of famers prefer the French ‘truffiére’) dates back to the early 1990s in Tasmania. It was while visiting a Tasmanian grower that Borry and Gaye became captivated by the elusive black truffle.
“I remember our very first truffle hunt, them running around with the dog, that whole thing and it was quite exciting — We ordered 100 truffle trees that day,” said Gaye.
To farm truffles, young trees are inoculated with the truffle fungi spores before being planted. It can then take four to ten years before a farmer may harvest their first truffle.
Borrodell now has around 800 oak trees and produces a reasonable amount of truffles each winter, the majority of which are used in their restaurant ‘Sister Rock’.
“It has been a real niche thing, but it has worked really well for us,” said Gaye. “And what has been really nice is having a restaurant to work with the truffles. Right through winter people who come out here are able to order our truffles on their menu. It is the ultimate paddock to plate experience.”
Being a relatively new farming enterprise there is still a lot of mystery around growing truffles, but that seems to be part of the allure for Borry.
“What I love about it is: when you are growing wine or apples, everyone has done it before, but with truffles no-one really knows, so your opinion is as good as the next,” said Borry, although there are basic measures required to make truffle farming a success.
“They like alkaline soils, but the soils of this district are naturally a bit acidic so that takes enormous doses of lime.”
Older trees must also be pruned to let sunlight through, and truffles do best with a drenching in summer.
“When we water them, we direct the pump into a relatively small area… replicating a thunder storm that's what I'm trying to do,” said Borry, who is still happy to take any better advice on the matter.
“None of this is in a textbook, so if someone else comes along and says that's a lot of crap. Well, I'd say they might be right.”
During the brief winter harvest period, Borry and Gaye employ a truffle dog and handler to sniff out the pungent fungus buried beneath the oaks.
When first starting out they bought a retired customs dog for the purpose, but that proved less successful.
“We got this gorgeous dog called Spike,” said Gaye, “We thought it would be really easy to move him away from drugs and explosives onto truffles, but he used to sit there at the cellar door with his little head nodding and pointing to those with suspicious pockets!”
Truffles can fetch as much as $3,000 a kilogram, although the price varies greatly on their shape, quality and intensity. In 2005 the total Australian truffle harvest was estimated at just 50 kilograms. In 2017, the harvest was near 13,000 kilograms and it’s predicted to exceed 20,000 kilograms in 2020.
While content with his own little oak forest, Borry believes there could be a good future for truffles in the district.
“The demand for truffle is just so great that they are never going to be over produced and I think it would be a great industry — particularly for Spring Hill, Spring Terrace, Millthorpe all that land out there, the colder it is the more they like it,” he said.
“It would be a beautiful oak forest —the truffle growing capital of the world!”