Our customers: Tamar Valley Truffles
A Tasmanian builder who had never seen a truffle and a veteran salesman who started his working life selling men’s clothes decide to farm truffles in a state that has yet to produce one.
What could possibly go wrong?
It sounds like the opening lines of a joke, but it’s serious – and a firmly entrenched and growing business now.
Each winter, on the farm just 15 minutes from Launceston’s CBD, the first frosts help work their magic on Tamar Valley Truffles' prized crop.
On the roots of two species of oak trees, the chill helps Tamar Valley Truffles’ black perigord truffles reach full maturity.
From June to September each year, Tamar Valley Truffles harvests the fungus, Tuber melanosporum, prized by chefs and gastronomes around the world.
For Marcus Jessup and John Bailly, getting to that point has been a journey that started more than 20 years ago.
In the late 1990s John Bailly and partner Lou Finney were looking for ways to utilise Lou’s family property. The 1600-hectare farm sits on the banks of Lake Trevallyn, south of the Launceston suburb of Riverside.
John, who’d spent his working life in sales and marketing, tossed around the idea of trying to grow truffles.
John and Lou talked it over with Lou’s son Marcus, a builder by trade.
“John came up with the idea and they asked me if I’d be interested,” Marcus said.
“I thought ‘it sounds interesting’ and I wanted to learn about it.
“I didn’t know what a truffle was. I didn’t know anything about them. They hadn’t even produced any in Tasmania when we were thinking about it.’’
Undeterred, the family decided to go ahead.
“We started preparing the soil in 1998,” Marcus said.
While most of the property is leased out, in 2000 and 2001 they planted 3000 trees – two varieties of oak inoculated with truffle spores – on 8 hectares only a few hundred metres from the lake.
But then there was a four-year wait to see if they would produce.
At that point, Marcus was still working as a builder.
“I’d done a building apprenticeship and at the time we planted the trees I was still building,” Marcus said.
That started to change when a dog truffle hunting with L-plates wandered off the pre-marked trail. Refusing to go back to the spots marked with truffle oil, Marcus’s trainee dog had found his first truffle.
Working life for Marcus gradually began to change.
“I kept building for one guy on and off for the first few years,” he said.
“The first year I’d come home from building at 3pm and do some work on the truffles. The second year I’d come home from building at noon.’’
Within a few more years work on the truffle farm had taken over.
While Marcus is the farmer, John Baily is the marketing and sales side of the operation.
It’s a long way from where John started.
Growing up in Hobart, he started his working life selling men’s clothing, including running his own business.
Later, he moved to the North-West, working with Vecon, which was then a major vegetable distributor.
“We lived in Devonport while I worked for Vecon but I was hardly ever there,” John said.
Instead, he spent a huge amount of his time based in Hong Kong, contracting shipments of fresh fruit and vegetables.
“I did the same when we came back here. Later we moved to Low Head.”
Life after Vecon was still in sales.
He’d built business relationships in Hong Kong and they were an important part of the next stages of his career.
“I had no real qualifications to do anything else so I stuck with selling.’’
At that point it was still consignments of fruit and vegetables.
“I had to find all these veggies all through the year and ship them to Hong Kong. Some from Tassie but also WA, Queensland and NZ,’’ he said.
He and Lou drove around Australia to set up their suppliers.
Life changed again as their fledgling truffle farm came on line.
In John’s mind, there’s only one way to market truffles at the top end: “You need to deal direct with the chef.’’
So it’s no surprise that selling truffles involves a lot of legwork, either by John himself or his Hong Kong agent.
In the early days of production, the range was much simpler than that offered today
“The fresh truffles are exported straight away. The smalls and offcuts are freeze-dried,’’ John said.
“It was then part of the progression for us to start offering a range of other truffle products like truffle oil.’’
It’s about that point about six years ago that Southern Sky Cheese came into the picture.
“I saw an essential part of our truffle business was to have truffled cheese and butter,’’ John said.
“We had to find someone to make it and (Southern Sky Cheese owner) Rod Wyker was suggested to me.’’
Rod was already producing his own Truffled Brie, Truffled Cheddar and Truffled Butter so it ended up being a pretty logical step.
For a while, those three products were the key Southern Sky contributions to the Tamar Valley Truffles range.
More recently, we’ve added Truffled Persian Fetta and Truffled Chevre, a goat’s milk cheese Rod still rates as the one that best shows off the truffle flavour.
The five products Southern Sky contributes are among a dozen value-added truffle products in the Tamar Valley Truffles range, including truffle oil, and truffled honey, mustard, risotto and even shortbread.
Those products are sold throughout Tasmania and in Victoria, NSW and Queensland through a range of distributors.
And there’s more to come.
In any given week it’s not unusual for Rod and John to be on the phone several times discussing potential product development.
We’ll see Marcus in the factory regularly, delivering more truffles or replenishing our label stocks. Or just generally giving us a hard time.
Despite its broadening range and reach, Tamar Valley Truffles remains at its heart a small family business.
With John handling sales and marketing, Marcus is happiest on the farm, from June to September each year harvesting and processing the truffles or at other times of the year maintaining the land and the trees that produce them.
His sister Fiona handles the business’s books while his other sister, Sarah, will often be seen helping on the Tamar Valley Truffles stall on its occasional appearance at Launceston’s Harvest Market.
“Basically, it’s a small family business down to the family photo on the TVT gift box,’’ John said.
PICTURES courtesy of Tamar Valley Truffles.
MAIN PICTURE: Marcus Jessup (second left) with partner Lia, mother Lou Finney, sister Sarah, niece Emma and John Bailly.
SECOND: Marcus Jessup
THREE: The Tamar Valley Truffles trees.