It’s strangely fitting that the universal emblem of luxury happens to be an ugly mushroom dug from the dirt by a pig. But give a truffle a mere sniff and it’s impossible to deny its heavenly qualities.
Stuart Dunbar is among the converted. The first time the former scientist tasted a truffle, it had such a profound effect that he went off and became a truffle famer. “The first time I tasted truffle was in a truffled mash potato at the Hyatt in the city, in around 2005,” he recalls. “It was just a mashed potato, but it made such an impression that if someone had truffle on the menu in Geelong, we’d be making a trip over there to have dinner.”
Dunbar planted 600 hazelnut, oak and holly trees, each home to the parasitic fungus tuber melanosporum, and became one of the first Victorian truffieres with his business, Yarra Valley Truffles.
But the road to truffle heaven isn’t easy. While Dunbar planted trees in 2006, it took five years to make his first harvest of Perigord Black Winter Truffles. “It’s not quite there yet – we’re still at pre-production levels,” explains Dunbar. “What I’m counting on is reaching production levels at around the 10-year mark. But this year’s the seventh and, touch wood, it’s looking quite good.”
Dunbar begins tending to his truffle trees in the later part of the year. He cuts them into a “wine bottle shape” so the sunshine can warm the earth. When the tree starts producing new root growth, the truffle also become active and starts colonising the root tips as they extend.
Truffles first begin to show themselves as ‘brûlé’, a burnt-looking patch around the roots of the trees, as the body of the truffle begins to form.
Through January to March, Dunbar needs at least three significant rains for the truffles to ripen, otherwise he has to water them himself. Around this time, some cheeky truffles will begin to poke their heads up out of the dirt, so Dunbar covers them thoroughly and hopes an insect hasn’t found his truffle before he did.
“If they’re formed too close to the surface and there’s cracks in the soil, insects can get in and attack the truffle,” says Dunbar. “Given enough time, they’ll get in and hollow out a truffle totally.”
If a truffle’s ripening underground, Dunbar reckons you’ll be able to smell it as it develops. “If I locate a truffle on the ground, I’ll sniff the earth for the aroma,” he explains. “If it’s a good one, you’ll know, because you’ve got an overwhelming desire to bury you face into the soil.”
A truffle’s scent is really the thing and Dunbar gets all musical when he’s talking about it. “You tend to get a few thin, clean sweet notes at the start of the ripening process,” he says. “Then they develop into the medium aroma with a few more notes and chords coming in there. When it’s a full on symphony, you know you’ve got a quality truffle.”
And apparently, no two truffles smell the same. Dunbar’s discovered that different trees around his property produce different-flavoured mushrooms. “I’ve noticed there’s a definite tendency to get the same type of smelling truffle of one particular tree year-in, year-out,” he says. “Chefs will ask for certain types. Circa’s Jake Nicholson does prefer the individual aroma from one tree.”
While a truffle’s scent is affected by its surroundings, scientists have found that its pungent aroma is actually created within the fungus itself, with “flavour-related sulphur metabolites and enzymes that degrade amino acids” encoded into its genome. Will a French truffle taste the same as a Yarra Valley? “The answer is basically yes, but there will be the terroir effect coming into play,” says Dunbar.
While there’s no disputing a truffle’s distinct aroma, that’s not the only reason it’s the gastronomic equivalent of gold. For the 600 trees planted on Dunbar’s property, only 30 of them will actually produce truffles. Then, a good half of those that do will be enjoyed by insects before Dunbar gets to them. Their scarcity – and the time and patience required for their production – is what drives truffle prices above $1000 per kilogram.
That said, Dunbar points out that you don’t need a great deal of truffle to make a big impact. “If you’ve got three grams on your plate [it’s fantastic], if you’ve got five you’re spoiling yourself,” says Dunbar. “When you look at it that way, it’s not that much, but what it gives to a meal is a great deal in return.”
So who’s sniffing out the truffles below the hazelnut tree? A dog or pig? “My truffle dog is an American Bulldog named Bear,” says Dunbar. “There’s some variation in breeds in their ability to scent, but it comes down far more to the relationship the dog has with the handler and the desire the dog has to please.”
So why not a pig? Surely a little truffle-porker would be perfect for the Yarra Valley? “In France you can tell people who use pigs because when they shake your hand, they’re missing one or two digits,” Dunbar explains. “The sows are extremely attracted to the truffles. They’re tame enough, and they’re hand-reared. But when you’ve got a pig that wants to eat the truffle it’s just found, and you’ve got an owner who’s trying to grab a $500 truffle out of the sow’s mouth, they lose a finger. It’s not something I’m that interested to look into...”
Stuart Dunbar’s truffles are served with meals at Circa.