Help needed to sniff out most desirable truffle

Friday, 17 June, 2011

On the eve of truffle season in Australia, food scientists at The University of Western Australia are calling for volunteers who think they have a nose for truffles to help identify what makes one gourmet fungi more desirable than another.

Australia’s emerging truffle industry is in a good position to become one of the biggest world suppliers, but it could all hinge on reputation.

UWA researchers will ask chefs and industry experts to determine which of the truffle aromas is desirable and why.

From these two sets of descriptors, Professor Garry Lee and his team aim to train volunteers to sniff out the key ‘desirable’ aromas.

“Once we can identify an ‘aroma profile’ we can use this to grade truffles,” Professor Lee said.

Funded by the Rural Industries Research Development Corporation, the researchers are using the latest technology (solid phase micro extraction head space gas chromatography mass spectrometry) and sensory science techniques to accurately identify the chemicals that make truffles so desirable to leading chefs.

“In order to develop reliable aroma grading models, it is necessary first to understand the relationship between the volatile profiles of truffles and the aroma quality,” Professor Lee said.

The Australian industry consists almost exclusively of the French Black Truffle (Tuber melanosporum), which grows underground on the roots of oak and hazelnut trees.

First produced in northern Tasmania in 1999, the industry now includes more than 200 growers across six states and the Australian Capital Territory with one of the biggest emerging regions in Manjimup, south-west of Western Australia.

Last year, the harvest in Australia was approximately 1.7 tonnes, and it is estimated that this figure could be as high as 10 tonnes within 5 years, worth more than $10 million.

Fresh truffles emit a distinctive aroma and can cost anywhere up to $3000 per kilogram. One reason for the exorbitant price is availability and the fact that there is no reliable or quick way to cultivate them. Truffles also have a short harvesting season, usually over winter.

Australia is in an unique position in that its truffle season occurs during the European summer when fresh truffles are not available, creating a real opportunity for Australia to market its truffles in Europe as a high-value product.

For Australia to take advantage of its position, it must ensure that its truffles are of the highest quality for export. Poor-quality truffles have the potential to severely harm the industry and cause irreversible damage to its reputation.

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