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“Growing truffle is a lovely combination of science and alchemy,” says Jenny McAuley. “There's some magic in it.”

For five generations McAuley’s family has had a farm in the same spot in Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula. Back in her grandparents’ day, it was a cherry and apple orchard. But in 2003 McAuley took on a section of the land and decided to take a risk with planting truffles – a crop notoriously difficult and slow-growing. She planted her first trees in 2005. In 2010, she dug up her first truffle.
“I now say I’m growing something like apples, only underground,” she says.

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McAuley’s business, Red Hill Truffles, has been slowly growing and expanding ever since. The farm works in three different ways: it supplies local restaurants, including Max’s at Red Hill Estate, Point Leo, Jackalope, Montalto, 10 Minutes By Tractor, Tedesca and Epicurian; it sells direct at the farm gate; and it’s an eco-tourism destination, where during truffle season people can visit to join McAuley and her dogs on a truffle hunt.

Taking people on the hunt is one of McAuley’s favourite parts of working on the farm.

“I love people asking questions and learning about it,” she says. During truffle season – which runs from the beginning of June until mid to late August – hunts are run three or four times a week. Groups of no more than 16 arrive in the morning and are taken out onto the grounds to see first-hand how truffles are found and harvested.

McAuley has two specially trained English springer spaniels, who help locate the ripe truffles. “Thomas is the older one and he’s sort of heading towards retirement,” she says. Originally a rescue dog who was then trained by a truffle specialist, Thomas has been working at Red Hill for the past six years.
Once visitors have had the chance to locate and dig up a truffle, there is either a tasting at the farm or a meal at the nearby Max’s Restaurant.

McAuley points to the local community as being hugely supportive in her endeavours, with locals coming by two or three times per season. Though she spent a lot of time at the farm growing up, she never lived there as a child. This hasn’t impacted her connection to the area. “It's just lovely getting to know relatives that live down here that I've never known,” she says. “I feel connected and get treated like a local because the family has been here for so long, even though I haven't been.”

It’s not only McAuley’s familial links to the property that make her love the area. “It's a beautiful environment with a mild climate to live in … we're 12 minutes from the beach, which is beautiful. And we're an hour from the city, which is fantastic. So, whilst it's rural living, you've got access to all the amenities of a city.”

Mornington Peninsula is also a hub of innovative restaurants and primary producers. Being close to the restaurants she supplies means McAuley can deliver truffles as fresh as possible.

The area also has a unique environment, which the community is working hard to preserve. For truffle to ripen it needs cold, dry soil. “Red Hill is a microclimate, which is fantastic [for truffles],” she says. “It's 800 feet above sea level so it's quite a bit colder than elsewhere down around the coast. It's beautiful soil.” McAuley says the area has been preserved by being made a green wedge, which means the land is set aside for farming and environmental purposes – a good thing, otherwise “the tendency would be to subdivide it and build McMansions all over the place”.

Each year at Red Hill Truffles brings new surprises – this year “it's the first time we found white truffle on the property.” McAuley’s enthusiasm for what she’s doing is clear – and she wants to give people insight into truffles every step of the way, from how it is grown, to the ways you can cook with it. “Whilst it's an expensive product, people don't have to buy a lot to have a really good experience of truffle,” she says. “So you can spend about $100 and feed six people for two meals … we tell people how to use it to get the most out of it. We want people to enjoy it, experiment with it. Start small, start simple, and then come back and keep trying.”

There’s now a seventh generation of McAuley’s family at the farm – her granddaughter. “She says she wants to be a truffle farmer – so that's music to my ears,” says McAuley with a laugh. “But I won't hold her to it at six years old.”

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Visit Victoria.

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