“It smells like sweaty gumboots sometimes.”

Andres Haas isn’t talking about the soggy surrounds of his 20-acre farm on the outskirts of Ballarat. He’s talking truffles. “It’s a real umami sort of flavor,” he says, of the pungent fungus. “It’s difficult to describe.”

Haas and his wife Lynette started their Black Cat Truffles truffiere on the outskirts of Ballarat in 2007. “We’re a little impulsive,” admits Haas. “We had never actually tasted truffles before we planted. It was the idea of doing something different, something that was really unusual and romantic.”

Originally intent on finding a piece of land to start just a small hobby farm on, the couple chanced upon their 2.5-hectare block by accident. “We had gone to see a property on the other side of town,” recalls Haas. “The house was pretty awful, and it was a wet and miserable day. We were driving around looking for a cafe to sit down and console ourselves in when we drove past this place. We just fell in love with it.”

A barren field when they bought it, the farm now supports 1000 trees. “We knew this area through the Central Highlands would be good for truffles, because you need cold winters and hot summers with decent rainfall,” Haas explains.

Though the climate was perfectly suited, the new farmers had a problem with the Australian soil – it was too good. In Europe truffles thrive in nutrient-poor soil, while the soil around Ballarat is typically nutrient-rich. To create the high-PH environment that truffles require, the pair added 120 tons of lime to the soil before planting. The truffle extracts phosphorous from the calcium in the soil and provides it in a form that can be absorbed by the tree, while the tree provides sugars to the truffle for its growth. “They work together,” says Haas.

Nine years on and it’s still just the two of them. They both keep full-time jobs – Lynette works in aged care, and Andres is in the IT industry (“As far away from the land as you could possibly get”), but the business is growing.

“At the moment we’re producing about 13 kilos a year. It keeps increasing and we should be at full production by about year 15. That could mean anything from 100 to 200 kilograms. It’s time consuming, but very satisfying.”

Haas says their black winter truffles start to germinate in late November, growing in size until the end of March, before beginning to mature. The season can vary due to soil temperatures and rainfall “It’s very seasonal,” says Haas. “We should see our first ripe truffles at the end of May, then harvest is only a 10-week window in the middle of winter.”

There’s a misconception that truffieres use pigs to unearth their buried gems. Haas says it’s just not practical: “Basically, truffles mimic the pheromone given off by a boar in heat. A sow is sexually attracted to the truffle, so in the wild they eat it, excrete it, and naturally spread the spores. But you can’t control a 300-kilo sow.”

Black Cat Truffles uses dogs to sniff out the aromatic truffles. Specifically, Ella, a border collie cross labrador. Sixteen-month-old border collie Harry is still in training. They also work with other truffle growers in the area, swapping dogs and using contract dogs when the season really kicks off. The dogs will track the scent of a truffle through cracks in the ground, marking a specific spot where they think one will be with a gentle tap of their paw.

Harvest is a busy time, and timing is crucial. “Truffles have a very short lifespan out of the ground,” says Haas. “A two-week window.” Throughout winter, Andres and Lynette harvest on a Tuesday and Thursday, then sell that week’s fruitage over the weekend at farmers’ markets in Melbourne and Ballarat. Black Cat also produces its own truffle salt and truffle butter as a means of preserving the unsold harvest.

Haas says truffles go well with foods that are high in fat, oils and carbohydrates. He suggests grating a little between layers of d’affinois; on top of scrambled eggs; inside cheese toasties; and stirring some through pasta. He warns that cooking truffle at high heat destroys the flavour, so it’s typically added right at the end.

And that truffle oil you think adds a hint of authenticity? Fake. Haas says all truffle oil is artificial. “When you read the fine print it will say ‘truffle essence’ or ‘truffle aroma’,” says Haas. “There’s no truffle in it at all. It’s completely chemical. To truffle aficionados or purists, it tastes and smells completely different. You can make your own oil with the real thing, but it’s got the same short shelf life as a fresh truffle.”

To experience the rare event of truffle hunting for yourself, Black Cat Truffles runs hunting and tasting events on the farm throughout June and July, as well as cooking workshops with guest chefs. This year Black Cat is running two roving lunches. They begin with a truffle hunt at the property in Wattle Flat before enjoying a three-course truffle-heavy lunch at Craig’s Royal Hotel in Ballarat, or The Farmers Arms in Creswick.

Broadsheet will celebrate a selection of Ballarat’s incredible harvests with The Sunday Roast Series, held at Housey Housey in winter. Across four weekends, a different chef will showcase some of the region’s best produce. See below for event details.

The Sunday Roast Series

Week one: Sunday May 29, 1-4pm (Sold Out)
Chef: Mick Nunn, Salt Kitchen Charcuterie
Dish: Rib of grass fed Sage Choice beef, dripping potatoes, maple roast parsnips, Yorkshire pudding, oxtail jus and horseradish cream.
Venue: Housey Housey, 12 Armstrong St Nth, Ballarat
Guests: 50
Ticket price $40, including glass of wine, beer or soft drink.
Buy tickets

Week two: Sunday June 5, 1-4pm (Sold Out)
Chef: Peter Ford, Peter Ford Catering
Dish: Slow-roasted Glen Greenock Lamb, creamy clay pot potatoes, sherry roasted root vegetables, golden nuggets, confit garlic, Summerfield Shiraz and lamb jus.
Venue: Housey Housey, 12 Armstrong St Nth, Ballarat
Guests: 50
Ticket price $40, including glass of wine, beer or soft drink.
Buy tickets

Week three: Sunday June 12, 1-4pm (Sold Out)
Chef: Suzi Fitzpatrick, Catfish Thai
Produce: Crown roast of Tarna Valley free-range pork, apple stuffing, salty black bean sauce and Mt Egerton winter vegetables.
Venue: Housey Housey, 12 Armstrong St Nth, Ballarat
Guests: 50
Ticket price $40, including glass of wine, beer or soft drink.
Buy tickets

Week four: Sunday June 19, 1-4pm (Sold Out)
Chef: Shannon Easton, Craig’s Royal Hotel
Produce: Porchetta of Western Plains Pork, duck fat potatoes and orbs of joy.
Venue: Housey Housey, 12 Armstrong St Nth, Ballarat
Guests: 50
Ticket price $40, including glass of wine, beer or soft drink.
Buy tickets

This article presented in partnership with Visit Ballarat.