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The hum is thick in the air as we arrive at George Sofronoff’s place deep in the silvery-gold winter landscape of the Queensland’s cool-climate Granite Belt region.
Bees are at work on tall spires of blue flowering rosemary and in bright clouds of honey-scented wattle.
It’s a picture of abundance not uncommon across the botanically endowed greater Darling Downs region, of which the wine and fruit-producing Granite Belt forms a southern border.
George Sofronoff, and Elsa, with fresh Granite Belt truffles. Photo: Wendy Hughes
But we are not here on this historic day to see the usual flora and fauna, rather a genus all its own, a trick of nature that has beguiled food lovers for eternity and is suddenly rising up through Queensland soil. This is a truffle hunt.
It’s actually George’s fourth year with the trufferie – the English and American oaks were inoculated with the spores 10 years ago by the previous owner – but it’s the first year he’s felt ready to share his secret stash, perhaps sell a few beyond the small circle of local chefs who’ve been in the know until now. The trees are reaching their full potential as they mature, now producing around a kilo each in the winter and he’s considering putting in more.
The nobbly black shapes are mysterious and magical, rising up through the earth as they ripen, loosening the soil around them and wafting a wild sweet-earth pungency.
Despite being a purveyor of one of the world’s most prized foods, George himself remains incredibly down-to-earth about it all.
“I don’t actually eat them,” he says matter-of-factly, although he’s grown used to the aroma his cans of beer take on in the fridge.
George Sofronoff with fresh Granite Belt truffles. Photo: Wendy Hughes
Before Elsa the dog came along, he went on hands and knees sniffing the soil to find the truffles.
He marvels that the only tools of the trade he requires are a toothbrush to clean the dirt off, and a paper towels to wrap them in, which helps to draw moisture away from the tubers when they are stored.
Elsa bounds along George’s side towards the fenced trufferie the day we arrive. I’m visiting with a luminary of the Queensland food scene, the applauded and awarded chef Amanda Hinds, who has spent thousands on truffles from Tasmania and Western over the years for her menus at Bundaberg’s Indulge, the cafeshe owned and ran until late last year, and for special event dinners.
Amanda is sharing some of the region’s secrets as a representative of Tourism Darling Downs, a new private enterprise geared towards shining a brighter light on the region’s treasures, particularly its many culinary attractions and wineries. Amanda is among the many recently excited to discover that Queensland’s first truffles are seeing the light of day.
Inside the trufferie, Elsa begins to dig excitedly at the base of a tree and looks to George for her reward – some ball time – and he kneels to finish the dig she has started. He grabs a handful of soil and sniffs, digs again and voila – a golf-ball-sized specimen appears and the aroma rises up to meet us before we even get a chance to bend down.
It’s a joy to see.
George says his best score was a tennis-ball-sized truffle he gave to his mum. Unlike her son, she’s a fan.
George’s truffles are priced according to size and weight and shape, starting about$1500 a kilo. Premium examples around frequently reach near the $3000 mark.
What makes them so precious?
The dish at The Barrelroom, Ballandean Estate, featuring Queensland truffles. Photo: Wendy Hughes
Partly their incredible but fleeting aroma. It lasts a few weeks if kept properly and cannot be replicated. Scientists have tried to preserve it but that aroma in your truffle oil will be a chemical compound that replicates the truffle’s scent, not the real thing. Which means truffles fresh from the ground – not flown in from other states – are indeed an exciting new feather in the cap of Queensland’s tourism and food industry.
We buy some of George’s truffles before heading off and visiting chefs Travis and Arabella at the Barrelroom restaurant at Ballandean Estate. Like Amanda, Travis notes the sweet molasses-like notes in the freshly dug truffles which he shaves over a chicken dish, with a fennel soubise and root vegetables. What a delight to hear Travis add ” … and local truffles” as the dish lands at our table.
Stanthorpe’s McGregor Terrace Food Project and Varias restaurant at the College of Wine Tourism have also been using the local truffles.
George can be contacted on 0484 758 197.
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