The West Australian truffle industry is the powerhouse of Southern Hemisphere black truffle supply, with 92% of Australian truffle exports coming from WA in 2018. Around 75% of WA’s annual yield is destined for overseas markets. Truffles Unearthed editor Max Brearley caught up with growers and dealers in the south west of Western Australia and the United Kingdom to hear about the season so far.
“It’s been pretty hectic,” says Alex Wilson of Manjimup’s The Truffle & Co, when asked about his start to a season in extraordinary times. There’s an air of relief common not just to the truffle industry but also across hospitality; the unknowns of the pandemics economic effect becoming more known, and while it will be a challenging season it may not be the catastrophe that some expected.
“A lot of countries are slowly, and some quite quickly, opening up. We’ve had a really quite frenetic two or three weeks of the season so far,” says Wilson. “Going to a dozen countries already and that’ll increase.”
“There’s a couple of things you can control on the actual farm that can give you supply either at the front end or in the peak of the season or at the back end,” says Wilson who apart from his role as the Sales Director for The Truffle & Wine Co, one of Australia’s biggest players, is also a truffle grower in his own right.
On the supply side, there’s two different dynamics that Wilson works with daily. “How much I need to fill orders this week and do I want to try and push and stretch a bit more? So, for us right now, we’re re-covering about 60 or 70 per cent of the truffles we’re finding. If they’re a little bit grey I don’t want them out of the ground, I want them to stay in until they’re black.” For Wilson the priority is as it has always been to achieve high but fair pricing for an amazing product. ”Every kilo I send out, every gram of that kilo, has to be usable, not like ‘ahhh good enough’” he says.
While the picture was initially very bleak Wilson says that “all of a sudden, the phone started ringing off the hook. So with New York I’m often on a 5a.m. conference call with them and they’ll soon be taking 50kg a week from me. Europe, a few weeks ago, they were telling me that France would have a full lockdown until at least mid-July, and they reopened restaurants as of like two weeks ago [he says in mid-June]. So that’s gone from nothing in the first half of the season to sending our first truffles to Europe this week.”
“It’s very much a moving feast,” says Gavin Booth, the owner-operator of Australian Truffle Traders. “The places that we traditionally sell to are the ones that are most affected [by COVID19], but it’s changing so rapidly. I feel a little bit weirded out by how much demand there is for truffle at the moment,” he says. “I didn’t think there’d be enough restaurants open. I didn’t think there’d be enough people really interested. Bigger problems to be honest.”
Booth’s thinking is that after months of lockdown for many they’re looking for some normality. He strikes a cautious tone however, saying his goal is to realise 50 per cent of the crops potential this year. More is a bonus. In a normal year Booth’s focus would be predominantly international markets such as the UK, US and continental Europe but altered times have necessitated some deft footwork. Selling direct to consumers across Australia has become a part of his strategy, as it has with other growers. His partners in international markets, usually supplying restaurants in the upper echelons of the Michelin world, have also adapted.
“So they’re really going out there and coming up with some pretty decent, innovative plans such as, you know, doing the most decadent truffle butter or cheese, and looking at value adding of truffles.”
One such partner is UK based owner of Wiltshire Truffles, Zak Frost. “We’ve been busy because we launched this online shop to supply the public,” says Frost whose client roster is a relative who’s who of the culinary world. He has been selling Booth’s truffle amongst others in the UK for 6 years and has been a catalyst for its growth in popularity there. “We didn’t know how it was going to go this year. It’s kind of gone mental, basically. what I thought would be a tiny thing has become this massive Instagram sensation. I’ve just had an enquiry from Perth, which is hilarious.” Frost says that he hasn’t spent a penny on advertising and marketing. “It’s all just the promotion we had from chefs. Heston did one and then Nigella posted our butter the other day to her two million followers on Instagram. You know the orders were just coming in one every couple of minutes on our e-mail; just pinging constantly.”
Frost puts the ability to market Australian truffle to this new at home market down to the work that has been done with elite chefs over the years, who now support him in spreading the message. “The biggest reason for the take up of Australian truffle in the first place is not because generically the Australian truffles are always better. Of course some seasons they absolutely are. I think it’s more to do with grading and quality control. Australian growers have always taken much more pride in only sending the best ones, which is also the case actually for our Spanish partners. But most Europeans are much less so. They want to sell everything. They [Australians] don’t start sending them until they’re ripe, for example. Whereas in Europe they just want to make money and European truffles don’t have anything to prove. They’ve been enjoyed and revered for centuries. West Australians are like ‘most people haven’t tried Aussie truffles, we want them to make sure that they’re top quality.’ “
David Coomer of Coomer Truffles says his focus is very much domestic. “We’re very small scale so a lot of our focus has been on the domestic market, restaurants predominantly. But we’ve also got a fairly strong retail focus as well. So we’re not really playing with the big boys in the international export space. That’s not where we are at this stage.
“It’s probably not quite as traumatic for us,” says Coomer, referring to their domestic position with little need for costly, disrupted and reduced international freight options. “Hopefully the good restaurants will get back on deck and they’ll be well patronised.
We’re really focused on that market, especially in Perth and the south west. With us being quite small, if a certain chef like, say, Kenny McHardy asks me for truffle, when I pack it up I’m basically thinking about Kenny and what truffle he likes. it’s not like we’ve got a big processing area and we’re just randomly going ‘here’s Manuka Woodfired Kitchen truffle he wants so much’ and we’re just shoving it in a bag and sending it off. We try and personalise as much as we can what they want and what their expectations are.”
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