Tasmanian truffles, wasabi, saffron and abalone are highly prized

FRUIT OF THE SEA: Abalone diving off Tasmania's coasts. Picture: Supplied
FRUIT OF THE SEA: Abalone diving off Tasmania's coasts. Picture: Supplied

Tasmania has built a reputation for incredible produce, with people travelling from interstate and overseas just to sample what we locals see every week at our markets, grocers and providores.

The state’s farmers have known for decades that the lush green pastures, clean air and water and rich soil result in the best produce.

Now the rest of the world has caught on and the small island at the southern tip of Australia has become synonymous with quality produce that attracts high ticket values for its producers.

Tasmanian Farmers & Graziers chief executive Peter Skillern sees this as a very successful branding exercise, where farmers and producers have been able to leverage off the state’s pristine reputation and genetically modified organism (GMO) free status.

“Tasmania traditionally has been a commodity-based sector with dairy, grains and poppies that receive little or no processing in the state,” Mr Skillern said.

“Our GMO-free status gives us market access. Producers and farmers are starting to appear in the sector and leverage off our GMO-free status and also the Tasmanian brand,” he said.

What started as niche products many years ago, such as Tasmania’s cherries, saffron, abalone and Cape Grim beef, have become sought after.

“[These producers] are a growing part of the sector and a growing part of the agricultural scene. They are also supporting and expanding it,” Mr Skillern said.

“In doing so the Tasmanian brand is enhanced. It is a very important element in the agricultural sector,” he said.

Another factor that is driving Tasmania’s high value produce markets is consumers wanting to know where their food comes from.

“Something is happening in the broader community, which is people’s desire to understand the provenance of their foods: who grew it, where did it grow and how?” Mr Skillern said.

“People are now more interested in their food. People are also asking how far their food has come to get to me; obviously there’s a move towards local food stuffs.” he said.

BLACK FUNGI: Perigord truffles post harvest and ready for market. Picture: Supplied

BLACK FUNGI: Perigord truffles post harvest and ready for market. Picture: Supplied

Fruity fungi: Truffles

Set on the outskirts of Launceston, along one edge of Trevallyn Dam at Riverside, Tamar Valley Truffles farms the famed French perigord truffle.

A combination of 3000 evergreen and traditional oaks on eight hectares produces truffles that are sold within Tasmania, and exported to Hong Kong and Japan.

Farm manager Marcus Jessup said the trees were planted 20 years ago and the first truffle appeared in 2000.

“My family are foodies and had heard about truffles from a guy who said it was his retirement fund,” Mr Jessup said.

TRUFFLE HUNTERS: Searching for black gold in the Tamar Valley. Picture: Supplied

TRUFFLE HUNTERS: Searching for black gold in the Tamar Valley. Picture: Supplied

While Tamar Valley Truffles has enjoyed success with its crop annually, Mr Jessup said growing truffles was a long-term, high-risk investment.

“Some people don’t find anything at all,” Mr Jessup said.

“It’s such a rare thing and truffles are hard to find,” he said.

Truffle spores live in the ground around the oak roots and the truffles themselves are the fruiting body of the fungus that is produced after the spores mate.

They are harvested by human truffle hunters weekly during cooler months, after their scent is picked up by a trained truffle dog.

“They grow in summer for four months between November and March, then when it cools they change colour and send off an aroma,” Mr Jessup said.

“The success of a truffle season depends on summer. They like high pH soil with a hot summer,” he said.

The distinctive truffle aroma divides people.

“All truffles have the same sweet, earthy smell, like a sweet red wine, but some people say they smell like sweaty socks!” Mr Jessup said.

“Every truffle is individual. They are a delicacy,” he said.

Tamar Valley Truffles sells the truffles themselves, but also value adds by producing oil, risotto, salt, mustard, honey, cheese and butter flavoured with the earthy fungi.

SPICY: These wasabi stems are highly prized in Japanese cuisine. Picture: Supplied

SPICY: These wasabi stems are highly prized in Japanese cuisine. Picture: Supplied

Sharp stem: Wasabi

Shima Wasabi general manager Stephen Welsh established a fresh wasabi operation at Northdown in North-West Tasmania that produces 10,000 plants hydroponically.

Mr Welsh started investigating growing wasabi 18 years ago because the plant interested him and he loved Asian cuisine and Japanese culture.

“I was intrigued by the mysticism and complexity of this fascinating plant,” Mr Welsh said.

“Whilst most people were deterred by wasabi’s reputation as being one of the world’s most challenging and expensive crops to grow, this merely helped fuel the fire and probably kept me going through the tough times when no matter what we tried, the wasabi simply gave up and died,” he said.

FRESH CONDIMENT: Stephen Welsh harvests wasabi stems in the state's North-West. Picture: Supplied

FRESH CONDIMENT: Stephen Welsh harvests wasabi stems in the state's North-West. Picture: Supplied

More commonly known as a green condiment for sushi, wasabi is not widely available around the world because it is so difficult to grow - but it has found a niche in Tasmania.

“We’re convinced there is significant potential to continue to expand Shima Wasabi, particularly as consumers increasingly look for unique foods and flavours produced in an ethical and sustainable manner, with known provenance,” Mr Welsh said.

Mr Welsh developed his wasabi hydroponic system over many years, refining the process each time until he was growing a product that is used in Australia’s top restaurants as well as by home cooks.

FIERY HEART: Lilac crocus from which saffron stigma are harvested. Picture: Supplied

FIERY HEART: Lilac crocus from which saffron stigma are harvested. Picture: Supplied

Sunshine spice: Saffron

Terry and Nicky Noonan started farming saffron in the Huon Valley in 1990 and had their first flower in 1993, which was the start of Tas-Saff.

Mr Noonan sourced saffron corms, or bulbs, from the other side of the world and then waited for them to successfully grow in Southern Hemispheric conditions.

“It took two-and-a-half years to produce one flower because we had to turn the clock around,” Mrs Noonan said.

“Then the next year we had thousands,” she said.

LABOUR OF LOVE: Nicky Noonan picks saffron as the sun rises. Picture: Supplied

LABOUR OF LOVE: Nicky Noonan picks saffron as the sun rises. Picture: Supplied

Saffron grows in temperate conditions with north-facing land, all-day sun and good drainage.

The saffron threads are the red stigma of the lilac crocus flower, with around 220,000 flowers needed to make up one kilogram.

“That’s quite a few millions [of flowers] that are hand picked, dried and processed. It is a labour of love,” Mrs Noonan said.

Tas-Saff grows its own saffron and also sources flowers from its network of Tasmanian growers.

“We produce as a group, or network, and produce about 10-20 kilograms in Australia,” Mrs Noonan said.

“We pick and process every day just after the sun comes up for 40 days during harvest, which is in April and May.

“At night the saffron flowers sit like little rockets with the tip poking through the soil and then they shoot up to a few centimetres high in the morning when the sun comes out, hence their name - the flower of the sun,” she said.

Besides the saffron threads that can be found in supermarkets and providores, Tas-Saff also adds value to its saffron by producing gin with Nonesuch Distillery and specialty bottles.

Their markets are Tasmanians, mainland Australians and exports to Asia and the Middle East.

“I see it as a high-end niche product,” Mrs Noonan said.

“We can’t compete on price on imported produce, but we can compete on quality. The quality is why only a small amount is needed,” she said.

PERFECTING THE PROCESS: Abalone drying to achieve the optimum candy heart. Picture: Supplied

PERFECTING THE PROCESS: Abalone drying to achieve the optimum candy heart. Picture: Supplied

Mouth-watering molluscs: Abalone

Japan leads the world in high quality abalone production and drying, but when the 2011 tsunami decimated stocks of the sought-after mollusc a Tasmanian business saw an opportunity.

Candy Abalone sources wild abalone around the state from its Hobart base and dries it for Tasmanian retail and Asian export markets.

Co-owner Mike Vecchinone had an understanding of the value of dried abalone before launching the business, while his business partner James Polanowski knew the industry and where to find the best produce, so they had the basics covered.

They catch greenlip abalone from King and Flinders islands and blacklip along the Tasmanian coastline.

HIGH VALUE CROP: Top quality wild abalone is sourced in Tasmania. Picture: Supplied

HIGH VALUE CROP: Top quality wild abalone is sourced in Tasmania. Picture: Supplied

Their aim is to create a high-end product, which is both technically difficult and a specialised craft, Mr Vecchinone said.

“Drying abalone is quite difficult to do. The Japanese are world leaders at it; they have been leaders for 600 years,” Mr Vecchinone said.

“We have no interest in competing with the Japanese, but after the tsunami we produced enough to replace their abalone stocks and since then have improved our quality and prices to be pretty much as good as them,” he said.

Abalone aficionados look for four qualities: taste, texture, colour and shape.

The best dried abalone ticks all these boxes, but also has a “candy heart” centre, which can only be produced by introducing moisture and taking it away at the right point in the drying process.

“It isn’t easy; it’s an art form,” Mr Vecchinone said.

The business has invested heavily in research and development in the past six years to ensure the optimal ‘candy heart’ is achieved every time.

“It’s taken us all this time to get to this stage, but now we’re 100 per cent certain that we’ll get a high-end product,” he said.

Candy Heart abalone sells for between $1000 and $8000 per kilogram, but Mr Vecchinone said people have trouble seeing where the high prices come from when they can buy it for so much less fresh.

“We buy at shell weight, but abalone [meat] is only about nine per cent of that weight so one kilogram is really about 90 grams dried,” he said.

Choosing only the best molluscs to dry means Candy Heart discards a lot of abalone, so the owners have been looking at using lower-grade abalone in cooked products, like sauces, which expands the business further.

Like the drying process, cooking abalone is very involved and takes up to 10 days.

“It’s quite complex. There’s only one person in world who can do it and they’re in Singapore, so we send abalone to them and it comes back cooked and packed, ready for sous-vide preparation,” Mr Vecchinone said.

The cost of cooking and drying abalone makes it an expensive purchase, so customers buy for special occasions like weddings or Chinese New Year.