BE FEATURE: The search for edible gold

BLINK and you'll miss Black Cat Cottage and Truffles when driving along dusty Howards Road in Wattle Flat. 

The cream-mudflat cottage sits on the corner, surrounded by green gum trees, to a backdrop of humming insects. 

Welcome to the Haas household- part family home, bed and breakfast and doorstep to one of Ballarat's few trufferies. 

It is not until I am ushered into the timber floor living room when I catch a proper glimpse of the one thousand leafy oak trees, that sit three metres tall and are dotted in neat rows across a 2.5 hectare patch of land. 

"When we get something in our minds, we have to do it," Black Cat Cottage and Truffles co-owner Lynette Haas says.

Seven years ago Lynette and her husband Andres acted on impulse, sold their two bed and breakfast businesses in Ballarat and made the tree-change to a trufferie.

"We had not tasted them ...let alone smelled truffles before starting the trufferie," Lynette says. 

French Black Truffles, once reffered to as "diamonds of the kitchen", grow on the roots of oak trees and are harvested in the winter months.

Truffles take years to mature and are ready to harvest when the soil begins to emit a sweet perfume. 

And five years into their venture, the Haas family struck truffle gold. 

With the help of their trustry truffle dogs, Ella and Louis, the pair unearthed their first truffle, weighing 35 grams. 

Black Cat Cottage and Truffles has 50 French Oak Ilex trees producing the Tuber Aestivum truffle in summer and 950 English Oak Robur trees producing the Tuber Melanosporum truffle in winter. 

This year Andres and Lynette will host their first Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (MFWF) event Picnics in the Truffle Patch. 

After the event was listed online last December, the pair received an overwhelming amount of interest.

"There are 51 spots avaiable and they are all filled by people from Melbourne," Andres says. 

Lynette says Black Cat Cottage and Truffles did not have the capacity to provide truffles commercially in Melbourne, but provided their produce to some Ballarat restaurants and cafes.

"The chefs are behind the eight ball (in Ballarat)," Lynette says. 

"The Unicorn comes to us for truffles to use in their scrambled eggs and The Plough (in Myrniong) also use our product." 

Lynette says most people in Ballarat shy away from new food trends. 

"There is nothing to be scared of, keep it simple...anyone can cook with truffles," Lynette says. 

Over the years Lynette and Andres have become inventive with their truffle recipes- cooking everything from truffle butter, scrambled eggs and pastas. 

But it seems Ballarat has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to fine foods, according to Ballarat Food writer Suzi Fitzpatrick. 

"Ballarat is still eight years behind Melbourne," Ms Fitzpatrick says. 

"Ballarat has a what a lot of chefs call 'the Universal Menu'...with items that are the same at every place you go to." 

"They are boring items with no finesse that have really had their day," she says. 

Ms Fitzpatrick says while Ballarat's cafe and pub culture was booming, Ballarat did not have a fine dining market. 

"We have never had a culture that supported fine dining," she says. 

"We don't have customers that are prepared to pay dish prices that create enough revenue to pay good wages for the extra staff that is required."

Ms Fitzpatrick says Ballarat hospitality industry was progressing, one day at a time. 

"We are developing our own regional style and that's what we should be doing," Ms Fitzpatrick says. 

"Melbourne is a big city and we should not be focusing on what Melbourne has and trying to copy what they do." 

Ballarat chef and caterer Peter Ford shares a similar view. 

Mr Ford says people had the option of traveling to Melbourne if they wanted a fine dining experience. 

"We don't have a fine dining restaurant in Ballarat, that's pretty hard to find," he says. 

Mr Ford said Ballarat restaurants were quite inexpensive and most people were happy to spend less when dining out. 

"There is a place for people to...find comfort food when they go out," he says. 

But dining out is not always about the food. 

"The restaurant experience is more than what you're eating, it's also about the service and ambience," Mr Ford says. 

"In some areas (the Ballarat industry) is not always delivering that." 

But all hope is not lost for Ballarat's food industry. 

More recently the MFWF regional events and the Golden Plate Awards have highlighted the region's culinary delights. 

This year four of the nine MFWF Goldfields events will be held in Ballarat. 

"On the final weekend of the festival we're dedicating the program to food and wine experiences out in regional Victoria with more than 70 events over three days," MFWF chief executive Natalie O'Brien says. 

"It's the perfect time to explore a new part of Victoria during vintage and harvest and meet the passionate, creative people behind our state's world-class produce."

Last year 10 Ballarat eateries won or were highly commended in the prestigious Golden Plate Awards. 

A string of other restaurants on the outskirts of town also scored a nod. 

Last week the Forge featured in The Age Good Food Under $30 awards. 

Co-owner Chris Matthews said the team were caught off-guard by the news. 

"They rang us up and let us know that we got in," Mr Matthews says. 

"They had under cover judges come in (to sample our food), we were completely unaware." 

Chris said business has since picked up at his Armstrong Street store and in Alfredton. 

"We had a really busy lunch service yesterday in both our stores, I don't know whether that is a coincidence or not," he says. 

As for the Haas family- they're in the truffle business for the long haul, regardless of whether Ballarat becomes the regional foodie capital of Victoria. 

"We are in the process of building a Tasting Shed, which we will use for masterclasses in the coming months," Lynette says. 

"We want to educate Ballarat about truffles." 

Ella the truffle dog goes in search for the hidden gold of black truffles.

Ella the truffle dog goes in search for the hidden gold of black truffles.

Andreas and Lynette Hass on the Wattle Flat farm.

Andreas and Lynette Hass on the Wattle Flat farm.


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