Truffle Kerfuffle

By Danielle Collis Photos Yanni

Nestled along Arthurs Seat Road in Red Hill is the picturesque Red Hill Truffles farm. Stretching across 40 acres of rolling hills with orchards, you can smell the wood fire burning and hear the birds chirping from the entrance. Jenny McAuley inherited the property from her uncle in 2003, but her great grandfather was the first to own the land dating back to 1886. Originally an apple orchard, she saw the opportunity to produce something different. Seven generations later, Jenny has four varieties of trees including oak and hazelnuts and harvests mainly black truffle and summer truffles.

Truffle growing isn’t easy and takes years to perfect. However, Jenny McAuley believes she has finally mastered the art of growing truffles, just in time for the coming season. But with local Mornington Peninsula restaurants temporarily closed or offering takeaways only, Jenny is worried what this season will offer.

With the season beginning in June and running till mid-August. Jenny said as from June she will be opening her doors from Wednesday to Sunday to sell her truffle and truffle products. But she will be leaving a majority of her truffles in the ground as she predicts there won’t be the same demand as usual whilst we remain in lock down. With only a 14 day shelf life, Jenny will sell on request. None-the-less she is excited by the amount of truffle that will be available. Walking through the orchard with Jenny and her beautiful dog, Maddie [who is in training to hunt truffles] you could tell by the ground surrounding the bottom of the trees that there will be an abundance of product.

Originally a social worker, Jenny’s curiosity and love for truffles was ignited during a trip to Italy where she “Chased truffle hunters through Italy.” Captivated by the truffle aroma, she said to her friend “I can grow this” but her friend thought she was absolutely mad. But as soon as Jenny returned to Australia, she began researching and realised that there was only a small industry in Australia, mainly in south Western Australia and Tasmania. Jenny knew she had the perfect property with good soil at nearly perfect ph level. The climate wasn’t exactly what the truffles required but was very close. “They like hot summers and cold winters with a bit of frost”. But truffle growing isn’t easy. Jenny first planted trees in 2005 and although it could take up to 12 years to produce your first harvest, she received her first truffle in 2010.

Now with over 2700 trees, including four varieties of oak and hazelnuts, Jenny predominantly produces black truffle (perigord) sometimes known as ‘black winter truffle’. She also produces summer truffle which has a lighter aroma and is used in cooking similar to the black truffle. But she has also been experimenting with ‘the truffle of all truffles’, the white truffle (borchii). It has a stronger aroma, but according to Jenny, “No one has successfully grown white truffle in Australia yet. White truffle is perfect with desserts and ice creams.” But determining when truffles are ripe requires training: “I’ve had to be trained to smell the aroma. It’s taken years and included extensive courses.”

Jenny’s farm doesn’t stop at just truffles though. In collaboration with Max’s restaurant in Red Hill she produces truffle products including truffle butter, honey, salt, paste and even truffle eggs. Her social worker background has equipped her with the skills to network and she has collaborated with numerous local businesses such as Bass & Flinders, Red Hill Brewery, and various cheese producers. She said, “I’ve encouraged other places that sell gin, beer or cheese to try my truffle. I offer them truffle to experiment, and we’ve produced truffle gin and vodka, beer and cheese.”

As winter is usually a quiet time, Jenny and her business partner Danielle Field, who owns Mornington Peninsula Experience, have created ‘Hunt & Gather’ where the public can hunt for truffle whilst learning about truffle cultivation. They offer this experience online at Mornington Experience and through local restaurants and wineries. Usually one of Jenny’s trusted sidekicks, Maddie or Thomas, her beautiful English Springer Spaniels will hunt with her as well. Usually this experience sells out, however since Covid-19 Jenny has had to temporarily cease her truffle tastings and hunts. She expressed her concern for what winter will hold during lock down, although with restrictions slightly easing she is hoping to open by July to offer small group hunts, tastings and even teach people how to cook with truffle. “People will want to get out and buy local produce,” she added.

Covid-19 has affected so many businesses on the Mornington Peninsula and Jenny knows it will affect her business as well. Before Covid-19 Jenny loved hosting groups of people from all around the world. On Tuesdays she would have hospitality staff from local restaurants and wineries visit for a tasting and to broaden their knowledge. Jenny explained how this was important as the staff could then go back to work with knowledge and a story about her truffles, “I love staff coming in, because they can tell the story, about where the truffle is harvested and share that story with their customers.”

The Mornington Peninsula restaurants, wineries and the community have shown unconditional support for Jenny since the beginning of her journey and now are continuing to do so. “Without the local support I wouldn’t have been able to do this.” Jenny explained that the council is doing an incredible job in supporting numerous local businesses and ensuring the preservation of the green wedge. “The green wedge is absolutely critical, it’s important that the council continues to support the preservation of this land.”

Many local produce stores such as Torello, Hawkes Farm Gate and Max’s Restaurant are also stocking Jenny’s products. Jenny explained with the incredible help of Mornington Peninsula Produce and the Mornington Peninsula Shire she is now able to sell through Farm Gate “Sarah from MPP really supported me during this season. They knew I had a real dilemma with selling this product and they have gone out of their way to help.” Jenny said her farm will be ensuring social distancing and appropriate health and safety regulations.

Red Hill Truffles will be opening their doors 3 June from Wednesday to Sunday and can be contacted online.

Peninsula Essence – June 2020