Dignams Creek business, Gulaga Gold, strives to make the NSW Bega Valley a successful truffle growing region

Fiona Kotvojs and Alan Burdon run a truffière called Gulaga Gold on a small stretch of land in Dignams Creek on the NSW Far South Coast.

Alan Burdon and Fiona Kotvojs run truffiere Gulaga Gold in the Bega Valley Shire. Their business is the only of its kind in the Valley. Photos: Ellouise Bailey

Alan Burdon and Fiona Kotvojs run truffiere Gulaga Gold in the Bega Valley Shire. Their business is the only of its kind in the Valley. Photos: Ellouise Bailey

Ms Kotvojs grew up at Dignams Creek and returned to the farm in 2005 when her family started working on their succession plan. Her parents had purchased the farm during their honeymoon in 1961 and it was originally run as a dairy farm.

When the pair moved back to the farm they said they had to find a way to make it more "financially viable", so in 2012 they started investigating truffle growing and decided to set up their very own truffière the following year.

They then planted three types of trees on their property that produce truffles - including English oaks, evergreen oaks, and hazelnut trees.

Truffle is a fungus that grows on the roots of these species of trees. The mycelium, or network of fungal threads, grow underneath the soil and attach themselves in the roots and soil in the proper conditions.

Truffle hunting dog trainer Kate Le Bars with her four-year-old Koolie Hepburn who sniffs out the truffles growing at the roots of the trees in exchange for a treat. They are a working breed dog and they respond very well to training and the drive to work. Hepburn is in her first year as a professional truffle hunter.

Truffle hunting dog trainer Kate Le Bars with her four-year-old Koolie Hepburn who sniffs out the truffles growing at the roots of the trees in exchange for a treat. They are a working breed dog and they respond very well to training and the drive to work. Hepburn is in her first year as a professional truffle hunter.

"We used multiple trees to see what would actually work in this area because there are no other truffières. We were the first ones, so we wanted to find out what would work and now we know so we can advise other people who are putting in truffières in this area," said Ms Kotvojs.

In the Bega Valley truffles form in February and by the end of March will have reached their full size. They then sit in the soil and will rot if there is a heavy rain following this period.

At the first frost of the season, usually in June, the truffles will start to ripen. Truffles will only be available in the period of frosts.

"So here we will get truffles for about six to eight weeks," said Ms Kotvojs. "The season here is roughly July and early August, but the peak is really July."

There are also other environmental factors such as too much rain during winter, drought, or smoke covering the sky during the summer that would affect the crop, "so they're not an easy thing to produce," she said.

Once Hepburn has identified a spot on the ground where a truffle is growing, Mr Burdon gets down to his knees and aims to identify the exact spot by way of smell. Once the spot has been identified, he will use a spoon to delicately remove the truffle from the ground to check if it is ripe.

Once Hepburn has identified a spot on the ground where a truffle is growing, Mr Burdon gets down to his knees and aims to identify the exact spot by way of smell. Once the spot has been identified, he will use a spoon to delicately remove the truffle from the ground to check if it is ripe.

The truffle must also be removed if the soil around it has been disturbed by the digging process, even if is not yet ripe as it will simply rot if left as is.

Despite this, even a small crop goes a long way due to how far a truffle can be used to flavour food. The current market price is around $3 a gram and fine dining restaurants will pay a premium for a well produced truffle.

Gulaga Gold has been selling its truffles locally for just $1.50 a gram in order to introduce it to people and restaurants in the area, and put the product "on the map" for the Far South Coast.

"It's something new in the area and we want to encourage people to buy locally and create a viable truffle growing area and so that involved getting other farmers involved too," she said.

Ms Kotvojs holds up a freshly harvested truffle that has just been dug up from the ground.

Ms Kotvojs holds up a freshly harvested truffle that has just been dug up from the ground.

"We've set out to prove it was financially viable, we've shown that it is now financially viable in this area," said Ms Kotvojs, who has also started running courses with truffle experts to extend the opportunity to other farmers in the area who might be interested in setting up a business.

"Hopefully we will get more people into truffles in the area because I can see it as something that can make a number of our local farms financially viable. I think you need two to three hectares and so hopefully we will get a number of other farmers producing them and export them as well."

Ms Kotvojs and Mr Burdon have been conducting research to establish the area as a prime growing area for truffles. They are trying to get a good understanding of what practices are good here, particularly what types of tress work well in this climate and during different periods, such as drought conditions.

Ms Kotvojs and Mr Burdon have been conducting research to establish the area as a prime growing area for truffles. They are trying to get a good understanding of what practices are good here, particularly what types of tress work well in this climate and during different periods, such as drought conditions.

She said like oysters and grapes, "truffles from different areas will taste different," as the soil and the environment result in a completely different flavour. A group of local chefs recently got together and placed their truffles as having aromas of the rich soils and sea in the area.

The main growing regions in Australia are Western Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Canberra. Having just a small operation allows Gulaga Gold to only harvest when they're ripe, unlike other producers around the country that might be on different timelines to produce larger quantities.

Mr Burdon said the biggest advantage for Australian truffle growers, a fast booming industry, is that countries in the Northern Hemisphere who traditionally eat truffles are able to purchase truffles all year round. "It gives us great market opportunity," he said.

In order to train Hepburn to sniff out truffle Ms Le Bars has worked with her to associate the word "truffle" with the smell of the truffle. A synthetic essence of truffle is used during the training program and the scent is associated with a treat. Dogs work well as they are not interested in eating the truffles, unlike pigs which were used before dogs could be trained.

In order to train Hepburn to sniff out truffle Ms Le Bars has worked with her to associate the word "truffle" with the smell of the truffle. A synthetic essence of truffle is used during the training program and the scent is associated with a treat. Dogs work well as they are not interested in eating the truffles, unlike pigs which were used before dogs could be trained.

They also sell into a number of local restaurants, including Wheelers Seafood Restaurant in Merimbula, il Passaggio and Octopii in Bermagui, Toast Cafe in Pambula, and Cibo in Bega.

In order to diversify their business, Gulaga Gold has this year started doing truffle hunts over the weekends and during the week throughout school holidays.

It has been quite a successful venture so far and they expect it to generate more interest from tourists a little further afield in a year without COVID-19 restrictions weighing heavily on the cities during prime truffle season.

This story Dignams Creek truffle business shows you don't need a lot of land to be successful producers first appeared on Bega District News.

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