Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where TERRA PRETA TRUFFLES, Braidwood, NEW SOUTH WALES
When you talk to Keith Marshall about truffles, one of the first things you’ll notice is the reverent way he talks about them, as if they were living, breathing, mystical creatures. It’s incredibly endearing, and once you learn more about them you’ll understand why, for it seems they belong just as much in an enchanted forest as they do in the culinary world.
We travelled to Terra Preta Truffles, a family run farm just outside the historic township of Braidwood in New South Wales, at the end of this year’s Winter truffle hunting season.
Keith and his partner Zoe Brand run the farm alongside his parents, Peter and Kate Marshall, and his siblings Gus and Rita. The family is well known for growing the ‘holy grail of gastronomy’, the French Black Truffle, or tuber melanosporum. These rare and precious edible fungi fetch a pretty penny the world over and are highly sought-after by chefs and home cooks alike.
‘Terra Preta’ is so named because of a specific type of dark fertile earth caused by man-made burning and charcoal making. It’s the addition of this ‘biochar’ to the soil that is the family’s not-so-little secret, and a large part of their success.
We join the couple as they head into the field of trees with their truffle-hunting dogs, Sal and Shadow, close on their heels, for a ‘hunt’ unlike any you’re likely to have seen before. Instead of firearms and plaid jackets, truffle-hunters are armed only with their skill, intuition and experience, a trusty truffle trowel, and the noses of their highly-trained dogs.
The Marshalls have been running their truffiére for around 16 years, though as Keith explains, ‘We didn’t come into this business like a lot of truffle growers do now, where they invest millions and kind of bank their entire lives on it working. It was much more organic than that.’
‘We moved here when I was 4 years old’, he says. ‘My parents bought the farm with the intention of it becoming a forestry plot and started by planting all sorts of trees, both for wood and to improve the landscape.’
Sadly, their newly purchased land was in a bad way, the soil damaged from years of animal grazing and cropping, pesticide use and gold mining.
Keith’s father, Peter, a renowned arborist and forester, spent years improving the soil and bringing it back to life. He reinstated natural waterways and wetlands, and ploughed the ground, returning the soil to a soft, healthy, friable condition.
‘It was during that time that we discovered just how important fungi is for the forests and so we started inoculating the forest with different types of edible mushrooms – Saffron Milk Caps and Slippery Jacks. It was through that process that we became interested in truffles.
‘We began experimenting and when we got really good results after a few years we decided to get serious. That’s when we started putting a lot more effort in, researching best practice and talking to scientists from overseas.’
‘We’ve always used sustainable practices here, even back before things like permaculture were mainstream. We’re not in any specific camp or way of doing things, we just do what we know is right for the soil.’
It’s this care and respect for the soil that has delivered perfect conditions for their 300 Oak and Hazelnut trees to spread their roots and for the truffles to form.
‘Our truffles have this beautiful nice round shape because of the soil prep we do, and because we look after, and are constantly digging in the soil and making it aerated and soft. So the truffles have plenty of room to grow to the shape they want to.’
‘It horrifies me that many growers blanket spray their grass and soil with poison. That whole idea just blows my mind. Truffles take all of what is in the soil around them, they are the essence of the soil. We don’t use any herbicides or pesticides or chemicals, we never have, and that’s part of our success.’
Success is something they have in spades, enjoying a ‘Best in Australia’ award the past two years running at the Australian Food Awards, and an esteemed reputation amongst the country’s top chefs.
While the family own around 600 acres across several plots of land in this area, the truffle farm itself is located on a tiny two acres.
‘We have another 10 acres of trees that we have planted and inoculated with truffles, but they won’t start producing for another three or four years yet. You need a lot of patience with truffles because you don’t get any real production for seven years or more.’
While the truffle season is relatively short, Keith says there’s an incredible culture around it, with local Canberra residents associating winter closely with truffle hunting.
‘As soon as it begins to get cold we start getting all these texts and messages on Instagram asking if the truffles are ready yet!’
While their biggest market by far is export, followed closely by high-profile chefs around Australia, the family still attend the farmer’s markets in Canberra every weekend during truffle season.
‘It’s only a very small portion of our sales but we find it a lot of fun …apart from the fact that you’ve got to get up at six in the morning when it’s minus eight!’ laughs Zoe.
‘It’s worth it though, everyone is so lovely and it gives us that direct contact with the people that are eating our truffles. We love hearing about what they’re making with them, they all get so excited about it.’
So what is it that has everyone so crazy for truffles?
‘They have this kind of magic that makes them really desirable and captivating. Perhaps it’s because of their rarity and that they only come around once a year, but I think it’s also because they’re so mysterious and full of life,’ says Keith.
‘We feel incredibly lucky to have such a fascinating job. We get to be out in the paddock with the dogs, effectively talking to the trees and hunting for treasure. We’re basically modern day treasure hunters.’