Farmer Jill O'Grady and her dog Sarge help a guest dig truffles (file)
There are no guarantees in truffles because you can't see them growing, says Jill O'Grady. Image by HANDOUT/SUPPLIED
  • tourism

Sarge sniffs success as truffles tempt rural tourists

Stephanie Gardiner April 6, 2024

A kelpie named Sarge picks up the whiff of a truffle ripening in rich soil and taps the ground with his paw.

Farmer Jill O’Grady gently pulls him back, so she can put her hands to the earth.

She exposes a truffle beneath the dirt and carefully examines the delicacy to see whether it is dark and firm enough for harvest.

Ms O’Grady dreamt of moments like this – her hands dirty and her senses full – while working as a banker in the city.

“It’s a mythical beast,” she says of farming fungi.

In 2012 she and her husband Neil swapped their life in Sydney for a patch of land lined with snow gums in Oberon, a mountainous region in central western NSW known for its alpine chill.

They removed roots, rocks and debris and trucked in 210 tonnes of lime to correct the acidic soil, before planting more than 700 truffle host trees.

Following the long traditions of Spanish truffle farmers, they precisely spaced out the trees to ensure sunlight could hit the root systems.

Jill O'Grady
 Jill O’Grady swapped life in Sydney for a truffle orchard in chilly Oberon in 2012. Image by HANDOUT/SUPPLIED 

After establishing the RedGround truffière and tending to the land for four years, their first harvest produced about five kilograms.

“We did a little happy dance because there’s no guarantees in truffles,” Ms O’Grady told AAP.

“They’re underground, you can’t see them, you just have to have everything crossed.”

The intrigue around the umami-rich ingredient is the focus of the Field to Forest festival in Oberon, opening this weekend.

Throughout April, visitors can sample local truffles and cool climate wines, take in the sights and scents of the region’s pine forests, forage for mushrooms and explore pristine Mayfield Garden.

Truffles and mushrooms have experienced a resurgence in recent years for their sustainable properties, deep flavours and place in folklore.

In Ancient Greek mythology, truffles are considered the product of a thunderbolt thrown from the heavens.

Oberon main street (file)
 The Field to Forest festival opens in Oberon this weekend. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

Italian composer Gioachino Rossini claimed to have cried only three times in his life, once when a truffle-stuffed turkey tumbled overboard during a picnic on a boat.

His grief could be understood in the modern day, with premium truffles selling from $2.50 per gram.

Australia’s truffle industry, which got off the ground two decades ago, has grown to be the fourth largest in the world after Spain, France and Italy.

Prime growing regions are spread across cool climate regions in WA, Tasmania, NSW and Victoria.

The O’Gradys, who host farm stays and foraging tours, have noticed a surge in overseas visitors curious about country life and farming.

“People are coming back to Australia but they’ve done the eastern seaboard, they’ve done the Sydney Harbour Bridge,” Ms O’Grady said.

“Now they want to come over the Blue Mountains.”

Sarge and his rambunctious offsider, an 11-month-old border collie named Scout, are an irresistible part of the appeal, she said.

“You get them excited and they just love it – it’s so much fun watching them hunt.”

“They’re so clever.”

The festival runs until April 30.