Truffles, the diamond of the kitchen.
It all started in 2013 in a restaurant in New York where we celebrated my son’s graduation as a Chef. When the server came to our table to present the menu he asked us if we would like to add some Tuber melanosporum also called Perigord Black Truffle, the ultimate “mushroom”, to one of the dishes on the tasting menu. The son who graduated declined the offer. I realised later why he did so. The eldest son however ordered the truffle to be added to the particular dish. Being in a good mood, I allowed the request without checking the implications on my budget.
my eldest son was on cloud nine when he ate his shavings of truffle.
We enjoyed the dinner and my eldest son was on cloud nine when he ate his shavings of truffle. He commented that the aroma and flavour was out of this world. I have to admit that the smell was really something that I never experienced before. It filled the entire table with an aroma that was very special.
At the end of the dinner I asked for the bill and was caught by surprise that I had to pay an extra 200 US dollars for the few slivers of Tuber melanosporum as it was indicated on the bill. I mentioned to my eldest son that he just spent a fortune and that he should have warned me beforehand as to what it would cost. The graduate son then told me that Tuber melanosporum is one of the most expensive and rarest foods in the world and that top restaurants all over the world pay more than 1000 US dollars per kilo for it if they can get it.
I was a bit caught unguarded and told my eldest son that next time he pays for his own needs. His reply to me was that it is a pity we cannot grow truffles in South Africa, because it will be the utmost business opportunity for us as a family.
Back in South Africa my eldest son, started doing research on truffles and one day he came to me and said that he realises that truffles grow naturally in Spain, Italy and France and that all three of these countries have something in common with the Western Cape, namely a Mediterranean climate. He went further and said that based on his research he believes that the Western Cape might be suitable for growing truffles. Further more he mentioned that the most expensive truffles only fruit in the winter of the Northern Hemisphere and that presents a huge opportunity, because if we can produce truffles in South Africa it would mean that we can supply truffles to the Northern Hemisphere countries when they do not have any. This, plus the continuous deteriorating exchange rate between the Rand and the Euro and Dollar, made me realise that my son might be onto something.
A few days later I mentioned this to a dear friend and he said that he would be interested in joining me in this business endeavour, because he always wanted to farm with mushrooms and that he is aware of the fact that a truffle is the ultimate “mushroom”.
My friend and I then asked my eldest son to investigate truffles as a business opportunity.
TRUFFLES AND ITS NATURAL HABITAT – OUR DESKTOP RESEARCH
Since the early ages truffles grew in the natural forests of the Mediterranean countries and were known for their aroma and as food for peasants. Truffles were harvested by truffle hunters with trained dogs or pigs during the winter months of the Northern Hemisphere. During the 17th century truffles were used in French cuisine as a delicatessen, but they were so expensive that they only appeared on the dinner tables of great nobles and kings.
There are various species of truffles, but only a few are renowned for their aroma and mystique. Amongst these are Tuber magnatum, Tuber melanosporum, Tuber borchii, Tuber Brumale and Tuber aestivum.
seen as a “mushroom” that grows under the surface of the soil near the roots of especially oak, pine and hazelnut trees.
Truffles belong to the family of ectomycorrhizal fungi and are seen as a “mushroom” that grows under the surface of the soil near the roots of especially oak, pine and hazelnut trees. They only grow in soil with a high pH around 7.8 in free draining, poor quality soil. Truffles prefer hot summers and cold winters and a rainfall of 700mm per year. The mycelia of truffles form symbiotic relationships with the roots of these trees and prefer argillaceous or calcareous soils that are well drained and alkaline.
Originally truffles were only found in the Northern Hemisphere countries, but Australia, New Zealand and Chile now produce truffles commercially at a large scale.
With two World Wars in Europe, economic devastation and the gradual migration of people to cities during the first half of the 20th century, truffle plantations were abandoned and truffle production declined dramatically. This scarcity of truffles resulted in high demand with extraordinary prices reaching $1000 to $2200 per kilogram in the retail market. It is estimated that the current supply only satisfies 60% of the demand, but even these estimates are vague as the production and selling of truffles are still covered in a world of mystery and secrecy.
It was through this desktop research that we realised that truffles might be cultivated in the Western Cape, because of the similarities with the Mediterranean climate of Italy, Spain and France. We however did not have any idea as to how to grow truffles and was skeptical, because literature was not readily available and that which was available was either in French, Spanish or Italian. There was however one book written in English that succeeded in raising our expectation to the level that we wanted to know more. At that point, we realised that if we want to enter this mysterious world we need to knock on the door of the best specialists in the world in order to reduce our risk to the point where we were prepared to put our money to work.
We scanned the Internet and identified a company in Spain that was seen as the most progressive and renowned in the field of commercial truffle production. We contacted them and they declared themselves willing to accommodate us in our search for answers.
TRUFFLES – OUR FIELD TRIP TO SPAIN
During January 2014 we invited one of the partners of MICOLOGIA FORESTAL & APLICADA, a company from Barcelona, Spain, to visit us in South Africa.
Whilst in South Africa Marcos Morcillo, the Director of MICOLOGIA FORESTAL & APLICADA exposed us to the world of truffles and convinced us to undertake a visit to Spain where he would show us some of the most advanced truffle farms as well as introduce us to the wholesale buyers.
We accepted his invitation and during March 2014 we visited Spain for three weeks. We attended an international research conference for 4 days in Vic, Spain and met researchers and farmers from all over the world. We then visited three farms where truffle production was in the matured stage and where yields of up to 250 kilos per hectares were achieved at a wholesale price of 400 euros (R6000) per kilo.
We also visited their nurseries and research facilities and were taken to the biggest truffle buyer and wholesaler in Spain, namely Laumont, situated in Lleida, Spain. The owner of Laumont assured us that he will buy every truffle we can produce in South Africa, because when we will be producing truffles in South Africa the Northern Hemisphere will have none of the expensive varieties which only fruit in winter.
By this time we were very excited about the possibility to grow truffles in South Africa, because MICOLOGIA FORESTAL & APLICADA was prepared to sell us their technology and assist us to establish truffle farming and a nursery in South Africa and provide consultancy services to farmers who would want to buy inoculated truffle trees from us.
We now had access to the world’s best technology
We now had access to the world’s best technology and had first hand insight into the methods of truffle farming, but what was lacking was the assurance that truffles could be cultivated in South Africa with a high degree of certainty.
MICOLOGIA FORESTAL & APLICADA then suggested that we undertake a study with regard to the soil and climate conditions in South Africa and compare it with the ideal conditions in Spain, France and Italy to see if we have areas in South Africa that resembles the ideal conditions for truffle growing based on the data available in the Mediterranean countries of Europe. They provided us with the parameters for the comparative study and with that we left Spain not knowing if we had the expertise and data in South Africa to undertake such a comprehensive study.
Back in South Africa we contacted the Department of Plant Technology from the University of Stellenbosch to obtain their advice. They referred us to a company who specialises in GIS based spatial analysis. After consulting them we were confident that they had the expertise and data to conduct the GIS maps for us.
THE GIS REVELATION AND SURPRISE
We instructed the specialist to develop Geographic Information System (GIS) maps for South Africa based on the parameters for the most productive truffle growing areas in Europe to determine if South Africa has suitable land with optimum climates and soil to produce truffles commercially.
They produced interactive GIS maps via a report titled as follows:
“GIS Based spatial analysis for the mapping of areas conforming to climate and soil parameters for the production of selected Quercus species as host plants for truffle production”
The major findings of their study are that:
- The majority of the Western Cape and a large area of the Eastern Cape is suitable for the commercial production of Tuber melanosporum, because the climate resembles the optimum climatic conditions found in Spain, France and Italy.
- A large area of these two provinces have the right soil conditions and that large quantities of limestone are not required to manipulate the soil conditions to a point where truffles can flourish. This will reduce the input cost so that it becomes feasible for farmers to be able to fund the establishment of truffle orchards.
- The area in South Africa suitable for truffle production, is as big as that of Spain, namely approximately 32 000km².
The GIS Maps produced was presented in the form of Software where a particular farm can be identified as falling in or out of the optimum area as well as whether it can produce Tuber melanosporum and if it requires additional soil manipulation by simply entering the farm’s GPS co-ordinates into the tool. This will assist in identifying potential clients as suitable for truffle growing and will reduce the risk of such an endeavor.
When we presented the report to MICOLOGIA FORESTAL & APLICADA they were amazed with the finding and assured us that based on the results of the study, South Africa can become a major player in the field of truffle production.
this was the most comprehensive GIS map he has ever seen
Prof. James Martin Trappe who developed the truffle taxonomy, mentioned to us after seeing our GIS maps that this was the most comprehensive GIS map he has ever seen and was surprised that South Africa has such a large area that is suitable for truffle cultivation.
Although the GIS maps can predict the suitability of a farm with a high degree, one still has to conduct soil analysis to determine the degree the soil needs to be manipulated, if at all.
The search for a suitable farm where we can establish an orchard of 50 hectares truffles with enough lawfully allocated water rights was our next quest.
OUR SEARCH FOR A SUITABLE FARM
With the use of our GIS maps we identified the areas where both the climate and soil were optimum and we communicated these areas to as many sales agents as we could find. The brief to them was as follows:
We need a farm that has the following characteristics:
- Must fall within the demarcated areas indicated by our GIS maps
- Must have 300 000 cubic meters of lawfully allocated water by The Department of Water Affairs
- Must have no land claims pending
We requested them to forward the GPS co-ordinates of suitable farms to us to verify that the potential farm falls within the optimum areas as indicated by the GIS maps.
We received various offers and visited about 20 potential farms.
MICOLOGIA FORESTAL & APLICADA provided us with the optimum soil parameters for the various truffle species and we took represented soil samples for those farms that matched our requirements. We also obtained the specific climatic and rainfall parameters for the different farms.
The soil samples were sent to a laboratory for analysis and the soil results plus the climatic and rainfall data for each farm were forwarded to MICOLOGIA FORESTAL & APLICADA for their analysis.
we identified a farm in the Langeberg that they assured us were ideal for truffle growing.
Based on their analysis we identified a farm in the Langeberg that they assured us were ideal for truffle growing. They agreed to come to South Africa to do an analysis on the farm and during June 2014 two of the Directors came to South Africa to do a hands-on investigation as to the suitability of the farm.
Their conclusion was as follows, namely that:
- The farm is highly suitable to grow 50 hectares of Tuber melanosporum
- The water allocated to the farm is enough to sustain 50 Hectares of truffles on full production
- The pH of the soil is almost ideal and would require no limestone to be added. This reduces the input cost significantly and reduces the risk involved in farming with truffles
- The soil needs no manipulation to make it suitable for truffle farming
- The climatic conditions on the farm are well within the tolerances found for high yields
Their conclusion was that they have not found a more suitable farm than the one we selected in all their years of consulting in Australia, Chile and New Zealand. This gave us peace of mind not only to proceed with our plan to farm with truffles in South Africa, but also that the GIS maps we now have can predict the suitability of a specific farm with a high degree of certainty. This will generate confidence in potential clients who want to farm with truffles and make use of our services.
We bought a Farm
During the visit of the two Directors to South Africa we concluded the following deal with them, namely that:
- We can have sole rights for South Africa to their technology and services
- They will take full responsibility for inoculating and planting 20 000 trees on 50 hectares of the identified farm
- They will assist us in establishing a nursery that can produce inoculated trees to be sold to farmers and for our own use
- They will provide full support for ensuring that the trees are sufficiently colonized with truffle spores, and
- They will provide consultancy services at a fee to our clients,
We then came to the conclusion that we have conducted a thorough due diligence investigation into the feasibility of farming with truffles on the selected farm in specific and that we have the backup to promote truffle farming to prospective farmers in South Africa.
Based on the analysis we did, we decided to buy the farm and proceed with our plan to cultivate truffles in South Africa. It was now April 2014.
Since 2014 we have established a nursery on the farm to grow oak trees and have inoculated 26 000 trees with Tuber melanosporum spores. We will plant 8000 trees on 17 hectares by December 2017 on the farm and an additional 12 000 trees on the rest of the farm by September 2018.
The photos below were the first good news we received namely that our inoculated trees were colonised with Tuber melanosporum spores. This meant that we have arrived in South Africa and that our vision is possible to achieve.
Tuber Melanosporum mycorrhizas can be seen in the below photo. The arrows are pointing at the young mycorrhizas. When they are pale brown/orange, they are young and just starting to form.
Since 2014 truffles were produced on three farms in South Africa in the district of Villiersdorp, Dullstroom and Kokstad. The latter two areas fall outside the parameters for commercial truffle cultivation, which proves that truffles are most probably more mysterious and versatile than what most people think.
We always said that we would only start marketing truffle inoculated trees to local farmers when we have proof that we are ready to plant at least 50Ha ourselves.
During the annual visit of MICOLOGIA FORESTAL & APLICADA in July 2017 they analysed the average mychorrhization of the roots of our two-year-old trees, still in the nursery, at 57%. Usually a 25% mychorrhization is good enough to transplant the trees out into the soil.