Mysterious things in our soil are going lump in the night. They’re rich and dark and have an earthy smell that drives us into a salivating frenzy.
TEXT MARIANNE HERON, PICTURES DAVID MORGAN AND SUPPLIED
We’re talking truffles here, or trufficulture, the science of growing the most valuable varieties of these underground mushrooms as a cash crop. It’s an initiative that could become a lucrative way of farming in the country, but just when the first South African truffles will be harvested isn’t certain. What is a fact is the couple of dozen hectares of truffle orchards dotted around the country, are on track to produce one of the most costly foods in the world. And how they came to be here is an intriguing story.
After being hit by floods four years ago, Leon Potgieter was surveying the damage near his smallholding at Stilbaai in the Western Cape. He saw something odd by a stream and could hardly believe his nose or eyes. “I thought, something smells weird,” he says, “and right at my feet were what looked like a few truffles.”
Leon grew his first mushrooms at the age of eleven as a pocket money venture and the passion never left him. He spent years working on mushroom farming concerns overseas before setting up his own business growing exotic and medicinal mushrooms in Gauteng. The sight of these native truffles was proof indeed that the area around Stilbaai, with its limestone soil and Mediterranean climate, was as suitable for truffles as he had hoped when he and his partners started a trufficulture enterprise there. (The truffles he found with two other native varieties have yet to be identified and it will probably take years of study to do so, but that’s another story.)
At about the same time, advertising film maker and farmer Volker Miros was planting 15 hectares of truffle orchards on his farm in Op-die-Berg, a settlement just north of Ceres. This was the culmination of ten years of research and visits to France and Italy to study truffles. Both Leon and Volker now offer joint ventures to help other farmers establish and manage truffle plantations – Volker’s company in consultation with Dr Ian Hall is Woodford Truffles and Leon Potgieter’s is Truffle Growers SA, in partnership with UK-based mycologist Dr Paul Thomas.
There are more than 200 varieties of truffle but the most prized are the black Périgord truffle, Tuber melanosporum, and the white Italian truffle, Tuber magnatum. These occur naturally in parts of Europe, in a symbiotic relationship among the roots of trees like oak and birch. Edible truffles are the fruiting part of the filament, like mycelium, and the name tuber – Latin for lump – relates to the way the truffles form telltale lumps in the ground. Périgord and magnatum truffles ripen during the European winter months and were traditionally harvested by sows, which hunt truffles. They are naturally attracted to them by a pheromone found in truffles that is similar to that found in boar’s saliva. Unfortunately they like nothing better than to gobble up their find and now trained dogs are the more usual hunters.
The secret of growing Périgord truffles, known as Black Diamonds, took centuries to discover. Following the failure of the wine and silk industries in France in the 19th century, due to disease, farmers there started truffles as an alternative. Production reached a peak at the turn of that century but the secret of trufficulture was lost in the aftermath of WW1 and the truffle trade has dwindled by a whopping 92 per cent. As wild truffles became scarcer due to deforestation and the population of rural areas, trufficulture was revived and now flourishes. In France, 80 per cent of the truffles are cultivated, and they have been introduced elsewhere, such as in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Truffles need similar conditions to those of their natural habitat, with free-draining, lime-rich soil, warm summers and sufficient cold in winter, plus plenty of water at the right time. And certain areas in South Africa do have the right conditions. “These are places with the least soil disturbance, a pH above seven and near the sea or a dolomitic area,” says Leon. They include Mossel Bay, the Cederberg, and near Bloemfontein and Grabouw. In some other areas, treating the soil with calcitic lime and adequate irrigation can also create favourable conditions.
Any romantic notions I had about hunting the fabled fungi deep in the forest were being rapidly dispelled. Trufficulture starts not with mushrooms but with propagating trees and, in Volker’s Cederberg nursery, row upon row of oak seedlings are growing under shade cloth. “We produce about 25 230 trees a year,” he explains. “We start with the acorn in a sterile nursery medium and it takes about 18 months for it to be planted out.”
When the saplings reach the six-leaf stage they are inoculated with spores of certified Tuber melanosporum imported from Italy, and are transplanted into a suitable orchard. “It’s quite a complicated process,” cautions Volker. “But if you follow all the rules I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t have truffles.” It takes five or more years before the truffle fruits for the first time which seems a nail-bitingly long time to wait before knowing of the chance of a return on investment, but apparently you don’t have to wait in suspense. “From eight months to a year you can tell how successfully a tree has been inoculated by cutting open the bag and taking root samples,” says Volker. “It’s not a gamble, it’s a scientific process.”
Given the critical process and steep start-up investment, a joint venture makes good sense. If a farm is suitable the soil must be analysed, treated and prepared and the famer needs an investment of between R116 000 to R120 000 per hectare. This covers inoculated trees, and the ongoing expertise and support of the joint venture partner over the 30 years or so of the productive life of the orchard.
Additional costs involve fencing, tree supports and irrigation, and the hire or purchase of a trained dog for harvesting, but the labour involved in maintaining an orchard by weeding and mulching is minimal. One man can easily manage five hectares with a small tractor. The value of the harvests is split seventy per cent to the farmer and thirty per cent to the joint venture partner, who will look after local and international marketing. It’s worth remembering that, in the Southern Hemisphere, African cultivated truffles will be in season when European ones are dormant.
Leon Potgieter isn’t putting all his eggs, or rather truffles, in one basket, “There are other types of truffles where the production values are better, they are easier to grow, and do so in areas where the Périgord truffle won’t grow. They also aren’t deterred by competitive fungi.” Leon has just inoculated his first saplings with Tuber borchii, the white Italian spring truffle (not to be confused with Tuber magnatum). The former can fetch around R3 000 to R5 000 per kilo, not quite as much as the black truffle that can fetch an impressive R10 000 per kilo.
Just how much South Africa’s first orchards will yield, remains to be seen. After the initial five-year wait the first crops are small, rising to full production after several more years, with estimates based on the amounts produced in New Zealand. These vary from an initial return of between R42 500 and R191 250 per hectare, to between R212 500 and R957 500, for black truffles. With that kind of return what can you say but the spore the merrier.
Woodford Truffles 021 791 3953,
Truffle Growers SA 079 242 0750