Two Tasmanians started Perigord Truffles of Tasmania, the first truffle farming operation in Australia. They inoculated the roots of oak and hazelnut seedlings with spores from imported French truffles, established a small plantation, and waited. It would take six years to see the first truffle. Despite an asking price of around $2500 a kilogram, you couldn’t call it a get rich quick scheme.
The truffle is the fruiting body of a fungus that forms on the roots of trees in natural woodland. There are many varieties, including Australian native truffles. However, while most are edible not all are particularly flavoursome – at least to humans.
In Europe, the black truffle (Tuber melanosporum), sometimes called the Perigord truffle, had been gathered in the wild for hundreds of years. It is a seasonal product, with the harvest peaking in the winter months. Until the mid-1970s, attempts at truffle farming had failed. However, in 1978 the French National Institute of Agronomics announced that it had successfully produced 20 cultivated truffles four years after inoculating young hazelnut trees with truffle spores.
The first truffle farming operation in Australia was at Needles near Deloraine in northern Tasmania on a property owned by Tim Terry and his wife Adele. The trees were prepared and planted by Duncan Garvey and Peter Cooper of Perigord Truffles of Tasmania Pty Ltd.
There were high hopes for the truffle farming industry, with prices anticipated to be $1200 to $2500 per kilo. The term “black gold” was widely bandied about. At the time, it was expected that truffles grown on the roots of hazelnut trees would produce after about five years, while oak trees would be slower to produce. In the event, the first truffle was produced after six years.
The company went on to promote an investment scheme for farmers, with contracts that included some rather draconian clauses. Participants were locked in for 20 years and had limitations on how and where they would sell their truffles.
Trees inoculated with truffle spores were subsequently planted in the cooler regions of every state and territory of Australia except the Northern Territory. The first commercial plantings of truffles in Western Australia occurred in 1997, with the first harvest in 2003. The Great Southern Region of Western Australia is now the largest producer of truffles in Australia.