Truffles are the edible fruiting bodies of fungi that grow in symbiosis on the roots of particular trees, usually oak and hazelnuts. Black truffles, Tuber melanosporum are one of the world’s most coveted culinary ingredients. Small harvests, demanding growing conditions, years of effort, the depth of knowledge required, and needless to say their taste, is what makes them so rare and special.
Black truffles are traditionally harvested in winter, around December in Europe and July in Australia. As truffle crops in Australia have flourished over the past few decades the world can access truffles nearly all year round.
Truffle production requires hot summers and cold winters so they thrive in temperate climates like that of Braidwood, NSW where the Marshall family runs Terra Preta Truffles.
Their land, now covered in about 20,000 oak trees, was once used for dairy purposes. Over the years it had been compacted and overgrazed by cattle, robbing the soil essential of oxygen and destroying the natural water cycle. Peter and Kate Marshall wanted to buy ruined land to prove they could bring it back to life.
The native Australians had farmed yam daisies on the land for tens of thousands of years. Peter and Kate took their cues from old wisdom and set out to restore dry waterways already etched into the land and make the concrete-hard soil soft and rich again. Terra Preta means dark earth which they achieved with their biochar, a special charcoal which encourages microbes and soil life, holds water and prevents nutrients from leaching away.
Wildlife diversity soon returned to the area; wombats are constantly rooting around for native truffles, local fungi slightly reminiscent of black truffles. Snakes, frogs and lizards are also residents and keep their lands free of snails and slugs.
Nowadays they run a family model of business with their children Keith, Gus and Rita and Keith’s partner Zoe. The financial return is reinvested in large scale repair of more land where waterways were destroyed by gold dredging and crushed by centuries of introduced livestock. No herbicides or pesticides are used; the family has deep-rooted ethical reasons for avoiding these toxins. They also suspect that herbicides may play a role in damaging the flavour of truffles as often seen in farms that follow more industrial models.
Growing truffles is painstaking, precise and very hard labour. Acorns are inoculated with truffle spores and planted in the soft soil which is often prepared for over a decade. Maximum truffle yield might take 12 -15 years to achieve. The truffles form during summer, grow in size through autumn and are harvested in winter when they have matured. Their growth is a complete symbiosis with the tree. The trees absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars which feed the truffle and in turn the truffle mycelia act as an extended root system for the tree. Different species of trees provide different sugars which can create different flavour profiles for the truffles. Peter, who is skilled and experienced in arboriculture, is currently into the fourth generation of his own oak trees, bred especially to suit what he looks for in truffles.
Terra Preta truffles are cultivated for density and a deep lively flavour. Their healthier metabolisms mean they don’t need to send out distress signals in the form of smell, and can devote more energy to making complex flavour compounds to reward the animals who would naturally eat them in the wild which would help disperse their spores.
The family has nine dogs all of whom are family. They work very hard for six months of the year but then get to rest for the other six months. The humans work all year round. Sal, their first dog, and the newer generation Shadow, Little Bill, Aldo and Jet are all trained to only indicate truffles that are at peak maturity and ready for market. Truffles are harvested manually and the dogs are paid for their efforts. Terra Preta have a simple grading system: outstanding, which they sell and not outstanding, which they keep to re-inoculate the growing forest. Then it is up to the chefs to choose which flavour styles and forms they prefer.
The truffles are sold at Canberra farmers’ markets which are a great opportunity for them to deal directly with people, including chefs from neighbouring embassies and consulates. A large proportion of the crop goes to the top chefs of Sydney, Melbourne and all around the country. Increasingly larger volumes fly out to other centres of culinary excellence like London, Paris, Singapore, Tokyo, and Napa Valley.
Tasting Notes Terra Preta Truffle, 2018 Season
Not overpowering on the nose, when chewing is when these truffles shine.
Moss, pistachio (when chewed and the oils have been released in the mouth), camembert rind, leaves, forest floor, notes of leather and tobacco, aromatic woody character similar to frankincense, red fruit growing close to the forest floor (wild strawberries), copper, sandstone, slight hint of spice and salt
Crunchy and vibrant texture. Similar notes and texture to black trumpets.
Bitterness and Acidity
Good acidity which gives dimension mid-palate. Slight bitterness and a hint of austerity.