A truffle obsession

Peter Stahle’s love of harvesting white gold
The Southern Farmer
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A MAN AND HIS PUG: Peter Stahle and José battling the elements on the quest for ripe truffles.

“FROM early childhood I used to go out with my father and collect mushrooms for eating,” said Dr Peter Stahle, Victorian truffle farmer and president of the Australian Truffle Growers’ Association.

Foraging as a child instilled a love of nature in Peter, and he developed a keen insight into the ground and the symbiotic relationships that existed within it.

This interest led to him initially pursuing a career as a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture, specialising in microbiology.

It was this expertise that made him the obvious choice to conduct an economic evaluation on the possibility of a truffle industry on mainland Australia both for export and domestic consumption.

Though he had left the world of research science behind, and had embarked on a career in management consultancy, it was his scientific background that assisted him most when conducting the study.

“I got to travel the world eating and talking truffles,” Peter remembered as part of his field research.

The research also opened his eyes to the economic potential of truffles as a crop, and he has been involved with the industry ever since.
His initial foray into growing truffles was a joint business venture in Japan, before the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) drove him out and he lost everything.

After such an experience, something more familiar and closer to home beckoned.

Highlands, a region tucked between Seymour, Yea and Yarck, presented an opportunity, with perfect conditions and ample rainfall for growing truffles.

Peter also had fond memories of the region having spent his childhood visiting a friend whose family had lived there for generations.

The proximity to Melbourne also became a deciding factor, as truffles once harvested need to be transported relatively quickly in order to retain potency and moisture.

Taking all this into consideration, in 2006 Peter and his wife purchased 65 acres of grazing land in Highlands.

He then undertook the monumental task of inoculating his own trees with truffle spores, from truffles imported from Italy.

Tuber borchii, a white truffle, was the chosen fungi and Italian stone pines were the trees of choice for the process.

The process, however, proved to be an absolute nightmare, with pathogenic species of fungus infecting the trees raised in his glasshouse.

With limited results, Peter was relieved to discover Colin Carter of Trufficulture Nurseries had trees inoculated with Tuber borchii, and the Black Perigord truffle, Tuber melanosporum.

Peter purchased these to bolster his investment.

Now he has three acres under truffles, in a truffière that is well fenced to deter predators and has good access to water.

The soil is regularly monitored for moisture content, and the PH is maintained around the high sevens.

The truffière produces both white truffles and black truffles.

Harvesting both types of truffles takes place from June until September, and the truffles ripen sequentially.

“The truffles have been growing since early summer, and then they reach their final size and start ripening once the cold hits,” Peter said.

“A good frost commences the ripening process.

“It is the trigger.”

JOSÉ: The world’s only pedigree truffle pug in all his glory.

Their dog, José, Peter said “is the world’s only pedigree truffle pug”, and it is he that indicates when the truffles are ready.

Truffles are then sold directly to restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, mainly to contacts who have approached Peter for his quality product.

“It’s a real pleasure to provide that service to the restaurants,” he said.

He did clarify though, “It is important to remember that even though you harvest umpteen kilograms of truffles, only so much of it is of commercial value because the restaurants do like perfect form, nice and round, a good size.”

This form is partly a result of aerated sandy soil that allows the truffles to form a nice neat ball.

It is also reliant on controlling invertebrate pests who love to feed on truffles.

“Millipedes, slaters and slugs in particular, are a significant issue when growing truffles commercially,” Peter said.

“The first harvest was fantastic, very little damage by insects and invertebrates, and then they discovered the crop and their numbers built up.”

TUBER BORCHII: Bounty from the Highlands.

Pest control is now one of Peter’s main concerns, as slugs really make a huge mess of the truffles.

The Australian Truffle Growers’ Association has successfully applied for a minor use permit for the use of chelated iron as a molluscicide in truffières.

Peter hopes this may be a game-changer for truffle growers.

This is just one of numerous breakthroughs and discoveries in relation to successful truffle production in Australia.

From the effect of different sites to different soils, and the results produced by varied tree hosts and their roots, truffle growers are garnering a better understanding of their crop.

With Dr Peter Stahle at the helm of the Truffle Growers’ Association knowledge can only continue to grow.

His has been a lifetime dedicated to learning and exploring, and ultimately celebrating the truffle.

More farming news and stories can be read in the August, 2019 print edition of The Southern Farmer or click here to access digital editions.