Truffles on Billionaire’s Farm Fuel South African Industry

Updated on

The fungi are ugly, wrinkly and smelly, but the Jack Russell-cross named Clyde who discovered the first black winter truffle in South Africa’s Western Cape province has helped confirm the country can grow these valuable tubers.

Clyde’s 200-gram (7-ounce) black truffle had been growing for six years under an oak tree on the Altima wine farm near Franschhoek owned by billionaire Johann Rupert, chairman of luxury-goods maker Cie Financiere Richemont SA. Cape Town-based Woodford Truffles (Pty) Ltd., the company that inoculated English oaks with mycelium spores and planted them in Altima’s orchards in 2009, thinks South Africa can reach annual sales of 250 million rand ($19.3 million) within 10 years.

“This is the beginning,” Volker Miros, head of Woodford Truffles, said by phone from Cape Town on Thursday. “We have now found five truffles in two orchards in the last two weeks. We put the dogs in, and bingo. Six orchards are planted and if we get 10 kilograms next year we’ll be very happy.”

Woodford Truffles enters joint-venture agreements with farms where the ground gets cold enough in winter to allow the tubers to develop. It’s not the only company in the game -- African Truffles started inoculations four to five years ago with three different species which are already showing early signs of success, according to Leon Potgieter who runs the enterprise. South African-grown fresh black winter truffles should fetch about 22,000 rand per kilogram, Potgieter said.

“We hope to be able to do 50 kilograms (110 pounds) per hectare and we’re expecting to go to 500 hectares (1,236 acres) at least,” Miros, 75, said. “We have six farms signed up with another 12, maybe, signing up this year.”

Winning Weimaraner

African Truffles said it has 24 hectares in production with a new contract from a European company for a further 30 hectares. There are also farmers who have set up on their own. Cameron Anderson, who has land in the trout-fishing region near Dullstroom, inoculated his trees seven to eight years ago and last August his Weimaraner, called Shammy, unearthed the country’s first black winter truffle.

“We were lucky and got four out last year and about the same so far this year,” Anderson said on Friday. “The trees need about 12 years in the ground before there’s massive production. Until then there are enough top restaurants and hotels in South Africa that will take everything we have.”

Truffle Treats

One thing all the farmers have in common are the use of truffle-hunting dogs. Clyde and his pal Bonnie, another Jack Russell-English Beagle cross, were trained by Woodford Truffles. To teach them, they’re given treats every time they find a buried object that has been doctored with truffle oil, said Miros, who grew up hunting for mushrooms and truffles in Germany’s Black Forest every Sunday morning.

The dogs don’t have to be expensive breeds, they just have to have good noses, Miros said. There’s a successful Australian truffle farmer who even uses American Pit Bulls, he said.

“From 2016 the first orchards from Volker will start to come into fruition,” Potgieter said. “We have one of the best climates for truffles with high altitudes, low temperatures, water, solar radiation. It’s going to be amazing. The southern hemisphere is going to be one of the biggest producers in the future.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.