1511 gram truffle!

Truffle #348, first spotted on 22 February 2016 in the first wave of covering near surface truffles, I had no idea of the actual size until late last Thursday when I was protecting truffles against the 21 Celsius day.  The ripening aroma’s being released made Lani mark the truffle enthusiastically, and I/we started digging… deeper, … and deeper.  Some 45 minutes later it was finally extracted from the ground. It was then cleaned, and air dried overnight.

I’ve had a lot of large truffles this year, many 4 to 5 hundred grams, with some noteable specimens including 630g & 800g.  But this one weighed in at 1511 grams!

1511g truffle
1511 gram T. melanosporum
1511g truffle tree
The hazel tree, 1511g truffle, Stuart & Lani

Being a Thursday, it was a bit late in the week for marketing, and none of my regular customers could handle a truffle of this size.  Other buyers could have been found, but there’s been a lot of “we’ll call you” responses from restaurants this year, so I decided I’d rather preserve it instead.
5 grams does a bottle of truffle vodka, so it’s big enough to infuse 210 litres (44gallon drum), although it will more likely be used for future promotional activities.

1511g Truffle in hand
Truffle & Truffiére

It’s certainly more satisfying to be able to keep (and show) it, than simply be saying “I once had a truffle that was…”

Why is truffle so cheap -new growers options

This is general summation of market factors as I am aware of them.

An earlier post discussed the Australian price being set by exporters/distributors.

In 2016 there are a couple of companies offering truffle “marketing” services, in addition to the usual wholesale distributors.  All proclaiming that it is a tough business, and the price is set by the market.  ie. probably contracted to a distributor at predetermined price?  A percentage of the blame falls on those that supply these distribution channels at the prices they request. If “They won’t pay more!” then why were they paying more ten years ago? Why didn’t the export price go up when the AUD fell in past few years?

Typical wholesaler/exporter markup is 30%, for a tiny fraction of the labour involved in producing it, and on top of that… shrinkage, their own grading methods, freebies and finally commission sales, if they don’t sell it, you get nothing!
It can take them as long as a day to sell 10kg of truffle, that’s nearly an hour per kilogram, and the poor people only get a half to a third of the price.
At >15hrs to produce a kg, let alone the preceeding investment, clearly growers are in the wrong game, but someone has to actually produce the truffle.

What can small growers do faced with cheap truffle in the domestic market?

How does this affect a small grower, beginning to harvest.

Newly producing growers should first attain a local market, restaurants and private clients within their region. As the harvests increase, so does the marketing. If time is insufficient to handle harvest season tasks, growing, hunting, harvesting, cleaning & grading, and marketing, then one of the first things generally considered is utilising a distributor.

————

At first with a few kg harvested, there is perhaps an inclination to accept this dictated price, and assume it will all come good when production increases. But I suggest upcoming growers need to consider what will happen then?
If production begins to require full time work 6 to 8 months (or greater) per year, then it needs to pay a decent wage, let alone recover the substantial investment of time and money already sunk into the truffle orchard.  There also becomes the problem, can you visit enough venues that only buy a small amount, and often say “We still have some, come back next week”
{ I’ll repeat from part one, This may upset some, but if the work input does not go beyond; mow occasionally, water a bit, and harvest a few truffles, then it’s unlikely dreams of real production will ever be realised.}

Message to growers

Don’t undersell your truffle, you will be cutting your own throat, as well as everyone else’s.

Is there an alternative?
Yes. Don’t make concessions, as your harvests grow, develop a market that appreciates what you offer, and stick to your price point!
Roughly half your truffle will have been lost to rot, a further significant percentage damaged, harvested underripe, overripe(while you learn better) and otherwise unsaleable. You are accepting those losses already, potentially unsold truffle needs to be regarded similarly. At least it can be used to improve your orchard, or you can freeze and sell for 50% (but don’t freeze and try to use in orchard, the spores get damaged, dry it instead)
As bad as that may sound, in all likelyhood you will find yourself with none left to eat most weeks, or only that which you refuse to sell because it’s not good enough.
If you choose to sell the poorer quality truffle, sell at your normal price and a suitable discount, or you’ll find the cheap price is your new price. ie pieces discount, minus 50c/g

A proper, well educated market, will also be the only way forward in future. In all likelihood, within just a few years, those same companies (or similar) currently distributing & exporting will begin importing southern hemisphere truffle from South Africa and South America into the Australian domestic market, making their quick profit and still saying “that’s the market”
How does $500/kg sound? Can the Australian market survive that? Should growers support these companies now in vain hope for better prospects in future?

Conversely, make sure what you offer is marketable.
I’ve gone back to past customers, who have been sold truffle well before the season had properly started, and had them state to me “We tried truffle a few weeks ago, it didn’t work well and didn’t sell, we won’t be buying anymore this year” Typically they’d been sold junk in May, early June.
Another absolute gem of a comment was an enquiry from a retailer “Do your truffles have aroma?”
This is another symptom of distributors out for a quick dollar, or of the orchards supplying them. In the past there have been Sydney distributors dumping last week’s unsold truffle in Melbourne.  Also forget trying to sell truffle in Melbourne after the festival, the last two years have seen unsold stock dumped at $1/g It was nearly two weeks old, I wonder what the consumers thought about their truffle meal.

I have little trouble selling direct to good restaurants at a reasonable price. Some of the restaurants I’ve approached have already had ‘export grade’ truffle in their fridge that cost them $1300-$1500/kg (not that they buy kg quantities) Yet they happily pay substantially extra for mine and become repeat customers.
Other venues are entirely price driven, there are numerous reasons to avoid associating your brand with them; cheap ingredients, insufficient truffle, truffle aroma added, not to mention the difficulty of extracting payment. They are welcome to their cheap truffle.

Why do some chef’s pay more when there’s cheap truffle available?
Why? That low price comes at a significant cost in quality and shelf life. The most obvious is freshness, be it a delay in shipping through intermediates, or perhaps it was last week’s unsold stock -which happens far too often.
A fully ripe truffle takes extra time and expertise, but it goes 2 to 3 times further on a plate, so they can improve the impact of the dish, at the same price point or even cheaper. Also it really doesn’t matter if there’s $4 or $6 worth on a $60 plate. Truffle is an ingredient that brings the Chef’s customers back for more, and therefore is/should-be exempt from the typical five-fold ingredient markup that covers all the associated costs.

Message to wholesalers

Shredded & Dried, a 2015 100g Truffle
Shredded & Dried, a 2015 100g Truffle, with numerous uses in the Truffle Orchard

If I need to throw away my truffle at those prices, I’ll be throwing it direct to your customers… but for now… I’ll stick to the best interests of the industry,  shred it and return it into the orchard in ways with potential to improve the crop in future years. Like this 100g truffle from last year… which I didn’t have enough spare time to cook & eat, {60-70hrs/week supplying others}

Thanks for reading, draw your own conclusions, but I ask again,
“Why is truffle so cheap?”

PS. If you become a Medium size grower… you have a problem. Melbourne venues typically take 50-200g. You are going to need 30-40 of them buying to make minimum wage for the year’s work it takes for proper production. You will be able to physically visit 6-8/day.
With a wholesaler, you will need 10kg/week for 6 weeks to make minimum wage.

Winter (or Autumn at last)

A very warm Autumn in 2016 has postponed the usual start of pruning. Leaves finally began to yellow only at the end of May. Photo below was taken 30th May 2016

Calendar Winter = Start of 2016 Autumn
Calendar Winter = Start of 2016 Autumn

This was followed by actual cold weather for the first week of June, commencing with a light frost on the 1st, about a third have yellowed and dropped 6/6/2016.  It will be interesting to see how this affects the start of the season.  There are a couple of truffles with hints of aroma and promising colour.
General opinion is it requires several strong frosts to kick off the season, yet during 2015, which was very cold right from the start of April, our truffles still only properly ripened the first week of July.  Two months more cold weather, yet only one week earlier than average. So there is something seriously missing from our understanding of truffle ripening factors.

Truffle eruptions slowed significantly in May. This would be partially attributed to less sugars from the host tree, and the increasing depth of formation which is observed.  Although this direct nutrition is proven source of truffle growth, there is clearly also carbon stored in the mycelium itself, which is a mechanism most fungi use.
This matches a couple of observations.  First that tree’s can skip a year’s truffle production, akin to unthinned apple tree’s which tend to produce every second year, the resources must be stored somewhere during the non yielding year.

live truffle on dead tree
New truffle, on a dead tree

Secondly it explains this tree; which has just produced it’s first truffle… but the tree died in the extreme drought conditions this past summer (it wasn’t very healthy the summer before).

This has been observed in Spain also.
https://trufflefarming.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/wood-wide-web-or-mycorrhizal-networks/

The late autumn yellowing is occuring throughout the Yarra Valley, so it’s not a microclimate unique to my orchard. Driving around, 7th June, oaks, willows etc are mostly yellowed and just commencing leaf drop, same as the truffiére.
There’s some other interesting variations this year, of uncertain relevance to truffles. {there’s a new lesson each year, generally leading to more questions than answers, therefore ongoing observation & research}
The pine mushrooms, Saffron Milkcaps & Slippery Jacks, were both quite late in forming this year, usually found in April, there were only a few occurences, with the main crop finally starting mid May.  Additionally, my patch of silver birch, which has birch boletes (and abundant fly agarics), has had only two mushrooms to date, compared with 30-50kg April last year. Like truffles, these are all ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungi, so there may be some useful correlation with the late warmth and extended drought.
An additional clue may lie in the fact that ECM within the truffiére, which received irrigation through the drought conditions in Dec-March, produced fruiting bodies at the normal time.
Temperature and sufficient moisture seem to be the prime factors.
Partial watering on the silver birch if next summer is also dry may provide some clues.

Why is truffle so cheap?

A general summation of market factors as I am aware of them.

Growing Truffles

Like any farm industry, there is a lot of support work in an orchard once it reaches commercial production. Vineyards do not simply harvest grapes a few weeks a year, nor are truffles in Australia simply foraged in the wild!
In both instances, without a lot of support work in the months before harvest, only a fraction of the crop would ever survive to reach the table.

For myself, the support work, on top of the harvest season itself in 2015, was ~1200hours, basically a full time job for eight months, {and should have been more}.
This equates to about 30 hours per kg of saleable truffle,

Admittedly, a lot of the work is of my own making, with a substantial amount of research being conducted alongside the maintenance. My insistence on being spray free also increases the workload. Finally, being very particular during harvest to achieve fully ripe truffles also adds a few additional hours per kg.
But even if I were to join the chemical maintenance club, and lowered my harvest standards, I doubt the work would drop below an average of 15hrs/kg. Other growers I’ve spoken with have concurred that 10-15 hours per kg is a realistic summation.

Simply put, for a grower, this means the price received for 1 to 2 kg of truffle is your weekly wage for 8 months, and the remaining 4 months is unpaid or other income (don’t give up your day job, just take 8 mths off per year…)

Continue reading “Why is truffle so cheap?”

Autumn tasks, remove spoiled truffles and blackberry seedlings

From the first surface truffles appearing end of February 2016, it has been a continual process inspecting & protecting them with additional soil cover. With more truffle eruptions each week, this will continue until season starts, but will soon slow as the tree’s shut down for winter. Without protection, over 80% of the surface truffles would not survive until harvest time. A portion are forming at reasonable depths, but can still become exposed to damage through soil cracks.

spoiled trufs & blackberries
Autumn tasks, remove spoiled truffles and blackberry seedlings

Six weeks worth, 7.5kg (in bags) of spoiled truffle has been removed so far, which surprisingly is a cause for celebration! It’s a bit less than last year, with more than double the truffles located, so a significant reduction in spoilage… so far. From past experience, about the same amount can be expected to spoil between now and the end of the season.

Causes will vary widely from damage by fungi, insects and animals. Frost and heat damage can also occur, and they can even be squeezed by tree roots, or suffocate depending on soil structure and rainfall.

Autumn Truffle Burns (Brulé)

Brulés in the Truffle Orchard
Brulés in the Truffle Orchard

This area was last mowed around a month ago. Autumn rain has greened the orchard, and the trees with active truffle colonies are quite visible.

  • Within the truffle burn (brulé -french for burnt) there is still some live grasses, but the burns are quite distinct compared to the inactive trees.  There no herbicides used in our truffle orchard at any time, the visible depletion of grass above is entirely due to the action of the truffle mycelium in the soil, where it lives on the tree’s roots.
  • There is a newly producing tree centre of the photograph and two more trees with truffles at 2 and 10 o’clock positions. There are also nice brule’s around the trees in the foreground, left and centre right.  As can be seen elsewhere in the photo, not all the trees have visible signs of truffle activity, and may never develop any.
  • Does a brulé mean there will be truffles? Simple answer, no, it’s just more likely to produce.  There are other competing fungi that can cause burns, and the truffle may not be ready to fruit this season, or lack some other requirement.  Active trees can also skip a few seasons before producing again, or become fully inactive.
Hazel tree needs maintenance
This Hazel tree has produced for the first time, and is in need of some maintenance.
  • Loose leaf litter is raked away from the brulé as it provides an environment for insects.
  • The hazel suckers are removed, sometimes leaving one and removing an angular branch. The primary goal of this is a tree shape which promotes soil warmth in Spring which start’s next season’s truffle activity.
  • Grass near the trunk is removed by careful cultivation, removing insect shelter.
  • There are also three near surface truffles on this tree (white tags), and a rotten one was removed.
  • This process took an hour, and there are 400 hazelnut trees in the truffle orchard, so priority is currently given to active trees. The rest will be done as time permits.
Hazel tree & Brule maintained
Hazel tree pruned, truffle burn cleared, surface truffles covered

Oak trees are easier to clear, but a little late for this as it one had a rotten truffle on the left side of the trunk, with insects sheltering in the grass likely culprits. The tree was double trunked several years ago, and was converted to a single with gradual pruning for minimal impact on growth.

Clearing Oak
Clearing Oak

Autumn, first signs of truffle

Although truffles first form in December, the first visible signs generally show in late February or Autumn.  These surface signs occur on the portion of the truffles that have either formed too close to the surface, or become so large a substantial amount of soil has been pushed toward the surface.

Surface_Truffle_Sign_114644
Truffle Push
Surface_Trufffle_Sign2_114753
Two truffles revealed

With access opened to the truffle via the cracks in the soil, these truffles are more susceptible to insect damage (Eg. slater & millipede in second pic above).  Regular searches for such signs, inspection and removal of rotten/damaged truffles, and covering the good ones is an important task at this time of year.  Rabbit’s that manage to get past the fencing are also attracted to the disturbed soil, and expose the truffles, sometimes learning to eat them too..

Along with other tasks, Autumn is now a full time job.  For every days work in harvest season, there’s around 5 days in supporting work such as this.

Recipe -Birch Boletes

Cooking Birch Boletes

Simple recipe that works well, birch boletes have a beefy taste, and are described as “meat of the forest” in Russia

Not a truffle recipe, but they grow on our farm, and a combination of dried bolete’s in a truffle rissotto is eagerly anticipated.

Birch boletes & ingredientsINGREDIENTS

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 Shallot, finely sliced
  • 1 Garlic Clove, pressed
  • Bowl of Birch Boletes ~250g, sliced ~7mm thick
  • Dollop of cream, 1 to 2 tablespoons
  • salt to taste

Slice caps ~7mm thick,  soft stems crosswise, and set aside dry woody stems for use elsewhere in a stock base.

Heat oil in frying pan on low heat, add butter and melt together.  Increase the heat, and add shallot and garlic, fry for around a minute.  Add the boletes and cook with occasional stirring until most of the boletes have softened/changed colour. Add the cream and generous pinch of salt and stir lightly for a further minute until it visible changes to a sauced consistency.

Serve Hot.  Divine with gnocchi, or combines wonderfully with mashed potato and roast lamb.

Truffle hunts, foot traffic and biosecurity.

Competing fungi and heavy feet are two major risks to maturing truffles;

Biosecurity

Many agribusinesses require visitors to utilise some form of biosecurity to protect their business and investment.  This varies according to the type of industry from simple footbaths, to full clothed protection for smokers (eg .tobacco leaf virus can destroy tomatoes in greenhouses)

For our truffiere, besides insect pests, there are other fungi that also like to form symbiotic relationships with trees. ECM (ectomycorhizal) fungi compete with truffles for space on the new root tips, and in some cases can totally displace truffle from a tree. Some of our trees were contaminated with these fungi before delivery, with fairy rings of mushrooms growing out from the trees since early years.

Ecm fungi on tree
Ecm fungi on tree

This affects around 15% of trees in our truffiere and it is likely we will need to remove and destroy many of the affected trees. Here the tree in the foreground has no signs of truffle at all, but is entirely circled with ECM fungi spreading outwards. Near the dogs is an actively producing tree, with a nice truffle brule around it, the roots from the infected tree will soon reach the brule with unknown consequences.

Current insects that attack near surface truffles ( less than 1” deep) are; snails, slugs, centipedes, slaters (especially the hard shelled “butchy boys”), springtails (1mm grey bug) and finally the occasional mushroom fly (fungus gnat). Management of these is limited to controlling the physical environment, such as reducing leaf litter, and locating at risk truffle early enough to cover with extra soil. We don’t believe chemical controls are acceptable with such a deliciate symbiosis between truffle and tree, nor for a gourmet product.
The last thing we need is additional insects or fungi.  We now provide gumboots for the few times a year guests visit the truffiere.  This an improvement on the previous use of footbaths which was time consuming, and less effective than farm provided boots.  If you do visit a farm elsewhere, ensure you have no soil on your boots, and use footbaths when asked.

There are various other insects and fungi known to cause problems elsewhere in Australian truffiéres, so each area has its own problems, and we all need to do our best to keep our problems local.

Foot Traffic

Here a large truffle has been stepped upon, or hit by a wheel during Autumn slashing in 2014. It was a surface truffle, ~300grams, substantially exposed to Broken-surface-trufflerisk from feet and insects, the pressure cracked it open, exposing the interior and it then rotted.
This happened despite best efforts to keep our traffic away from high risk regions around known producing trees. This truffle was on a new tree and an unexpected 150 cm from the tree, which is unusual as first truffles generally appear next to the trunk.

What can we do?
Please follow any requests of truffle, wine growers etc. regarding footwear and other precautions, and only walk where instructed while on farm, this  partially reduces the risks to the grower. Utilise any provided disinfectant baths both entering and exiting the property.