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Tree Change to Truffle Farming: Black Cat Truffles

Visit Ballarat

17 Aug 2022

Filed underMade of Ballarat

In late 2019, with no farming background but a big sense of adventure, Kristen Simpson and Tom Eadie took the leap from inner city Melbourne to the stunning Central Highlands, the proud new operators of Black Cat Truffles in Wattle Flat.

They settled into their new life, with the necessary black cat, two newly minted truffle-sniffing dogs, and a small herd of multicoloured alpacas, little knowing a pandemic was on the way. In spite of the tumultuous times, the truffiere on the edge of Creswick State Forest has served up many moments of delight and joy. With the promise of green horizons, farmgate food and cute canine companions, winter truffle hunts have become incredibly popular. Now, with the discovery of a summer varietal in a small stand of the property’s 1,000 oaks trees, a puffer jacket is no longer essential to the adventure.

We spoke to Kristen from Black Cat Truffles about her tree change, truffle-infused treats and some of her top tips for visitors to Ballarat and its rural surrounds.

How did your truffle journey begin?

Missing out on a house at auction set the whole ‘tree, tractor, truffle change’ in motion! Back in September 2019, we were feeling despondent about the absurd price of properties in Melbourne (little did we know that they’d soon skyrocket!). While Tom was reading the paper (and having a bit of a sook), I randomly decided to see what was available in a 100km circumference around the city. A beautiful advert popped up: an aerial pic of Black Cat Truffles with its truffiere, gorgeous gardens, chic cafe, comfortable home and attractive location overlooking the forest. It dazzled me. 

We’d never talked about moving out of Melbourne and felt very firmly based there. Almost in jest, I said to Tom, “How does running a truffle farm in Central Victoria appeal to you?”. He took about a minute to consider the proposition and replied, “Let’s do it!”. We’d bought the farm a few days later.

What inspired the name Black Cat?  

The previous owners apparently had a black cat – and we inherited the name from them. We quickly bought our own ‘living logo,’ a beautiful black cat we named Kora. Her namesake is Kinkora Road in Hawthorn, where we failed to buy that house!

Tell us a bit more about the canine helpers in your truffiere. Has truffle hunting come naturally to them?

Winston & Lottie joined the family as eight-week-old puppies as soon as we moved to Wattle Flat. The Lagotto Romagnolo (‘Lottie’) and Australian Shepherd (‘Winston’) were two breeds well known for their truffle-sniffing abilities. Lottie proved herself to be an exceptional truffle dog very early on. When the new-season 2020 winter truffles hadn’t yet begun to emanate any intriguing aroma, she found a small, deeply embedded last-season truffle without any incentivising treat; she just knew there was something interesting below the surface of the soil and just kept digging! 

We’ve had both Lottie and Winston professionally trained as truffle dogs and they can both consistently find the black diamonds on demand – however Lottie occupies the premier status in this role and surprises and delights us with her incredible ability to sniff out big, small, deep and shallow truffles, hunt after hunt after hunt (loving the treats along the way of course!). Winston is taking his time to match his canine sister in her yield and enthusiasm…but who wouldn’t take a second seat with such a clever mate doing all the work!

Winston the Aussie Shepherd sniffing for truffles

Winston may be the less focused of your truffle snufflers, but his nose uncovered a surprising find in late 2021 – a harvest of summer truffles. Is this rare in Victoria? 

Indeed, it was a surprise! Three rows of our English oaks had been inoculated, sixteen years ago, with Tuber Aestivum (summer truffle) spore. The previous owners had never found any sign of summer truffles under those trees, and we’d assumed that would be our experience too. On a hot sunny December day, Winston became very interested in something growing in the ‘summer rows’. He’d found the first summer truffle on our property – the first of a 38 kilo harvest that season. We couldn’t have been more amazed and thrilled!   

To the best of our knowledge, we are the only Victorian truffle farm harvesting Tuber Aestivum on any scale. Summer truffles are very hard to source anywhere in Australia during the warmer months despite being the most popular truffle consumed worldwide (especially in the northern hemisphere).

What can people expect when they visit?

For our truffle hunt and tasting experience during winter, you’ll be welcomed with a hot beverage and homemade brownie on arrival before heading out into the truffiere with Tom and one of our trained truffle dogs. Before the hunt begins, Tom will introduce you to the ‘art, science and magic of truffle farming’ and share some insights into what optimises the production of Perigord truffles buried within the root system of our oak trees. With a basket of muddy nuggets in hand, Tom then washes the truffles to reveal their more desirable culinary appeal. We celebrate the hunt in the cosy French-themed cafe, with a five-part degustation menu featuring freshly grated or shaved truffles. The menu includes a glass of French bubbles, creamy French truffled-cheese on crackers, a delicious soup, creamy pasta and decadent dessert.

We’re excited about offering truffle-curious foodies a new experience during the summer months when the Tuber Aestivum season is in full swing. On warm summer days the truffiere and gardens will be picture perfect, with the English oaks in full shady leaf and corridors of mown lawn separating each row of trees. After the truffle hunt, we’ll serve up crisp local wine and a regional grazing platter.  

How does the Tuber Aestivum summer truffle differ from French Perigord you’d typically harvest in winter?

Summer truffles have a much coarser peridium (outer skin) than the Tuber Melanosporum (black Perigord truffle) and are sometimes described as having an external appearance like ‘pyramidal worts’. The interior is a paler, more hazel colour than winter truffles and they have a less intense, lighter and more delicate flavour. They’re bit more garlicky/spring onion flavoured than their winter counterpart. They are often described as nutty, buttery, creamy and quite sweet. 

Tuber Aestivum summer truffle

Where can we source (or taste) your truffles?

Truffles are available from our website or our farmgate shop during the season. You’ll find our range of truffle-infused products at providores in the region.  We also take our fresh truffles and truffle products to farmers’ markets in Melbourne and regional Victoria.

We supply truffles to more than thirty restaurants in Ballarat and beyond. In the Ballarat region, you might find them on the menu are Ragazzone, Renard, Eclectic Tastes, Mr Jones, Lola, Underbar and The Shared Table. In our region we also supply Kadota, Bellinzona, Beppe, Cliffys and Winespeake, as well as several fine-dining establishments in Geelong and the South Coast. Bakehouse Brewery in Dean (between Ballarat and Daylesford) even make a truffle-infused beer using our product.

Tell us about some of the truffle-infused treats and condiments that you produce? 

We make six truffle-based products in-house: Truffle Butter, Aioli, Oil, Salt, Honey and Mustard. The Truffle Butter is by far the most popular of these. It contains 10% minced fresh truffle and is an absolutely delicious burst of truffle flavour schmeared on just about anything, dolloped into a pasta dish, on a fine piece of meat, stirred through scrambled egg or mashed potato or used to bring a toastie to new heights. The Aioli (creamy, piquant and vegan) is also very versatile and can be used as a dip for crispy truffle-salted fries, with a burger, plopped into homemade soup or over roast vegetables. Our Truffle Honey is also very popular when drizzled over a creamy Brie or Camembert, or mixed through mascarpone served with poached fruit and toasted pecans.

What is your favourite truffle-based dish and what drink would you pair this with?

The simpler the better!  We love cooking a selection of interesting mushrooms (eg King Brown, Lion’s Mane, Yellow Oyster) with some garlic, spring onion, and a dash of Truffle Salt in lots of Truffle Butter then adding cream to make a simple but exotic sauce for fresh pasta (Pappardelle is a favourite). Serve with crunchy baguette liberally truffle-buttered and the result is sublime!

We would pair this with a local Ballarat wine – buttery chardonnay from Clarnette Wines, or a crisp local Riesling or Pinot Gris from Jean Paul’s Vineyard.

What do you love most about the Ballarat region?

We love the energy we can sense in Ballarat; it feels like it is enjoying a period of strong self-belief and pride. It ticks just about every box for sassy, discerning, pleasure-loving, informed and progressive residents. For visitors, it is an elegant, sophisticated but cool regional city, where you can enjoy a range of high-quality local foods and wines, interesting and unique experiences, and a very warm welcome.

The foodie offering is Ballarat’s best keep secret…often in quiet, self-effacing establishments, down curious laneways, in fascinating old buildings or out in lovely rural settings close by…like Black Cat Truffles!

What are your top three recommendations of things to do in the region (after a truffle hunt, of course)?

  1. Discover Ballarat’s famous gold heritage – through conventional channels like Sovereign Hill, but also by foraging/panning for gold in the area, or exploring the surrounding historic villages too which were established during the gold rush period.
  2. A walk around St George’s Lake – this hidden gem is close to the centre of Creswick. Exploring other interesting geological formations in the area such as the many volcanos which surround Ballarat is also a great treat.
  3. A stroll around Lake Wendouree and the Ballarat Botanic Gardens is also a must, especially during the warmer months!

Across Victoria’s Midwest, we acknowledge that we travel across the ancient landscapes of many First Peoples communities.

These lands have been nurtured and cared for over tens of thousands of years and we respect the work of Traditional Custodians for their ongoing care and protection.

We recognise the past injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country. As our knowledge grows, we hope that we can learn from their resilience and creativity that has guided them for over 60,000 years.

As we invite people to visit and explore Victoria’s Midwest, we ask that alongside us, you also grow to respect the stories, living culture and connection to Country of the Ancestors and Elders of our First Peoples.