Emerging from the towering forest of The Black Spur, the highway to Buxton splits through farms and rolling granite hills like
a crack in the landscape. Pulling up to Adrian Utter’s farm, you can hear the Acheron River flowing, snaking through the middle
of the property, dividing its own territory. Adrian’s mother and her siblings inherited the land, subsequently portioning and selling
off paddocks until one hundred and fifty acres remained. One third is reserved for native bush and the rest comprises both flat and
steep paddocks of cattle, vines and a very special oak tree orchard. The family home dates to the late 1940s and is accompanied by
a large barn built by Adrian for his winemaking. Though they now live in town, Adrian’s parents still spend time on the property:
mum is an artist with a studio by the house, where she paints watercolours, and dad, a writer for the Australian Financial Review,
assists Adrian with a variety of projects. With his parents’ help, Adrian has built up the historic property into the working farm
it is today.
Thoroughly a man of the land, Adrian’s experience of both academic and practical education is behind his know-how. He holds a Bachelor Degree in Agricultural Science from The University of Melbourne, and from a life of living on the land, well-honed skills. Working as an agronomist (an expert in soil management and crop production) for E.E. Muir & Sons, an agricultural supplies distributor, Adrian advises and consults vineyards and fruit growers around the Yarra Valley.
When he’s not working all across the region, Adrian can often be found tending his orchard, set on the back hill of his property.
In 2008, he planted oak trees inoculated with truffle fruit bodies and, eight years on, he supplies truffles to restaurants including Grossi Florentino, Vue de Monde and our very own Meletos. Chef Neil Cunningham was introduced to Adrian through a mutual friend and when a forage was proposed, we jumped at the invitation.
“Things have gone pretty well,” Adrian tells us. “We started finding truffles three years after we planted. Some people can wait up to ten years and still not get any.” His method is simply to let the trees do their thing. “So many people stress about keeping everything neat and managed. I think a diversity in the ground proves it’s healthy.” A range of mushrooms and grasses sprout amongst the trees, albeit accompanied by less welcome animal droppings. “Wombats are a menace,” he grumbles.
Adrian dips down and holds his nose right to the base of a tree; we look on, not quite knowing what to expect. He jumps up and keeps moving down the rows. “I’ve got a bit of a runny nose so I’m a little off, and it does make it a lot harder without a dog.” Adrian’s loyal and much-loved foraging dog was bitten by a snake on Christmas Day last year and sadly passed away. It was a blow to the spirit of the farmer and it’s only now that he’s considering a new hound to train up. The smell the human nose should hunt for is described by Adrian as an earthiness mixed with leather and shoe polish. Some say that it can even be fruity, though we found they smelled like the sea, its salinity reminiscent of a freshly shucked oyster or mussel. “Well, at least you’re honest!” Adrian tells us.
Beginning growth in December, the reaping season generally runs through July and August. Once pulled from the ground, truffles are best consumed within two weeks.Value depends on quality and shape, but currently the going rate for a black truffle is about $1.20 per gram, or up to around $2000 per kilo, so it’s a definite case of waste not! In The Café at Meletos, diners can opt for a special addition
of truffle shavings on their pizza and over in The Stables at Stones, Chef Hugh Davison is experimenting with truffles as an ingredient
in his dégustation menu.
Back in the grove, Adrian points confidently at the base of a bushy oak, “Alright, you can dig up this one here.” Handing over his specialist equipment, a humble silver dessert spoon, he advised on the delicate removal. What came out of the ground was stunning. We’d gone from no expectation of finding a truffle to digging up a beautiful, strange miracle of nature. And it was huge, “That’s even bigger than I expected,” Adrian said with a smile, as he held the heart-shaped piece of black gold.