Eight years ago I set out to plant my own truffle patch - a hedged English garden with pristine rows of oak trees separated by rows of rich lawn. That's the image the local truffle trade sold me on, anyway. Meanwhile, my instincts were screaming that to achieve the success of Mother Nature, it would make more sense to replicate how truffles are produced in the wild.
I was told other things that ran counter to what I thought was common sense - needing herbicides to keep the weeds down for one thing, so that MJ, my Aussie shepherd, could better detect the pheromones truffles give off.
With more questions than answers, I decided to go my own way, banned all sprays on my patch and, lo and behold, I started to find truffles from year three instead of after the seven you're told you usually have to wait. But as my truffle patch matured, the yield failed to grow. This bothered me. Each season yielded between 10 and 30 kilos of truffles, and for 500 trees that's not much. At Vue de Monde, my restaurant on Collins Street in Melbourne, we use two kilos a week during the season, and on top of that there's my other restaurants and the special one-off dinners we create each winter.
I supplemented my harvest with truffles from a mate called Friendy (he's also my kids' tennis coach - only in Melbourne!) at a rate of $2,000 a kilo. He supplied me with some of the tastiest and most fragrant and black winter truffles I'd ever tried. And it was Friendy who told me of a farm in Reidsdale in NSW, an hour's drive south-east of Canberra, run by a guy named Peter Marshall.
Peter was elusive but more than worth tracking down. He never minced words, and was very candid in his take on the local truffle industry. (Short version: he's not a fan.) Over the phone, we reviewed how I'd set up the patch. Everything I had done was wrong. Several years later, Peter made a surprise visit to my patch at the Burnham Beeches farm. "The patch is all wrong! Cut the trees down! Start again. We'll use the coppicing method and re-inoculate them with great-quality truffles sourced from Spain!" I was speechless. But I believed in Peter, and his advice has paid off.
The take-home for me from all of this is that truffles are not well understood in Australia, even by chefs and many of the producers. People have tried to sell me truffles affected by herbicides and poor harvesting techniques, or truffles that are too big and immature in flavour. It makes me worry that a lot of people buying truffles or trying them in restaurants are getting an inferior product and wondering what all the fuss (and expense) is about, when a good truffle is still one of the great wonders of the culinary world.
What does this mean for someone who has never eaten a proper black winter truffle? Plenty. If truffle farmers in Australia learn from their mistakes - the same mistakes I made - and become more holistic and organic in their practices, we'll see truffles that have the true and intense flavour that made them so precious in the first place.
Why do wild truffles excite us? Because they need us. They need animals - be they human, canine or pig - to dig them up and spread their spores, and their scent is the lure. The relationship is as simple as that.
When it comes to celebrating truffle season, my favourite way isn't to shave them over things raw - I save that for white truffles - but starts with fermenting them in the same way you pickle walnuts. Then I take a cup of fresh truffle and a cup of the fermented truffle, chop them finely, add a tablespoon of finely diced onion, and sweat them off in a small amount of cultured butter for 10 minutes. I add some brown chicken stock, then place the mixture in a blender and purée it all until it's really smooth. Then I'll toast a thick slice of brioche, smother it in butter, slather on the truffle puree, then top the slice with sautéed mushrooms and a fried or poached egg.
Every ingredient needs the others to really shine, but the truffles make it special. Even more so when they're your own: local, seasonal, enduring. That's what I call sustainable.
Shannon Bennett is the chef-owner of Melbourne's Vue de Monde among other restaurants.