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Truffle master class heralds harvest

Edition 161 Katsunobu Kitaoka ...

Katsunobu Kitaoka, one of Japan's most respected and influential chefs, put on a master class of truffle cuisine in May to help launch Tasmania's 2015 black truffle season.

Especially famed for his skills in French cuisine, Kitaoka-san was on his second visit to the State and had accepted an invitation from John Baily, who markets black truffles grown on a family farm in the Tamar Valley.

Mr Baily said: "Chef Kitaoka was appointed by Tourism Tasmania as a Friend of Tasmania in 2013 and we believe his influence in Asia and Europe can only enhance Tasmania’s growing reputation as a fine food source."

Kitaoka-san operates restaurants in Japan and France and is a professor of haute cuisine.

The highly credentialed chef not only accepted Mr Baily's invitation to run a master class for local chefs, he brought along a koto player, Etsuka Sakai, to entertain them as well as expensive-looking bottles of a rare saké for them to sample.

Kitaoka-san explained that he was equally proud of his nation's harmonic culture and the gastro-harmonics of saké and truffles.

The chef worked in a capacious kitchen in the capacious Windermere family home where Baily and his partner, Louise Finney, live.

The kitchen, opening to a deck that overlooks sloping grounds and a sinuous stretch of blue river, was soon full of eager young chefs.

Mr Baily has known his house guest for three years. They clearly enjoy an unusual rapport; yet neither speaks the other's language.

Body language, expressions, gestures and bursts of interpretation by Hobart-based Masako Sawada helped; but the men's shared passion for premium black truffles was at the heart of their interaction.

In a translated address to the assembled foodies, Kitaoka praised Tasmania: "This is the best environment to produce any produce. Tasmania is high quality, beautiful air and cleanest water."

He said that truffle products and fresh truffles in season were important in his kitchens.

"But the supply of truffles from France is decreasing," he said. "Scarcity affects prices.

"Three years ago I was surprised and very pleased to discover that Tasmania produces black truffles of exceptional quality. When I met John Baily I became convinced that he will have a role in Japan's [culinary] future."

In 2001, Mr Baily and Ms Finney had planted 3,000 trees inoculated with black truffle spores on 8ha of land by Lake Trevallyn.

The deciduous oaks (Quercus robur) and holly-like evergreen oaks (Quercus ilex) were the foundation of a new business, Tamar Valley Truffles, or TVT.

Truffle cultivation is tricky and only a small percentage of the many plantations established in Australia since the 1990s have achieved commercial status, but TVT flourished from the start.

Ms Finney's son, Marcus Jessup, manages the farm.

Both tree varieties thrived and an initial scanty winter harvest in 2008 has now developed into remarkable bounty.

Encouraged by Tasmania's persuasive food brand, the family has introduced a range of value-added truffle products featuring Tasmanian inputs including east coast sea salt, mustard, cheddar and brie, butter, oil, honeys, shortbread and a packaged risotto kit (with imported rice).

These products are distributed by another family member, Jonty Barnett of Eden Foods.

With assistance from local chef Sean Keating (extending his reputation through his Friday evening pop-up, Phoenix and the Wolf, in Perth), Kitaoka-san showed how to make good use of a range of the TVT products.

There were German-style potato pancakes with truffle oil; truffle mustard baked rice balls with oyster cream sauce; scrambled egg with truffled honey; corn croquettes with truffle salt; lamb cutlets basted in truffle oil and served with a garden salad; and a truffled honey crêpe dessert. The chef said he had made a stronger than usual truffle dressing for the salad because of the full flavour of Baily's home-grown vegetables.

Kitaoka-san suggested each of his creations would be enhanced by a shaving of freshly dug truffles when harvesting begins during Tasmania's mid-winter chill.

Mr Baily does not believe the chef sees himself in the role of importer in Japan of TVT products, but said he was confident their interactions would be creative.

Standing beside the Tasmanian, Kitaoka-san beamed … enigmatically.

View the video profiling Tamar Valley Truffles.

2 June 2015, Edition 161

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