A decade after temporarily losing her sense of smell, Tanya now has a nose for truffles

A decade after temporarily losing her sense of smell, Tanya now has a nose for truffles

Truffle producer Tanya Moroney lives with the rich aroma of the fungus which, during the chilly months of truffle season, infuses her New South Wales Southern Highlands home, her clothes, and her nose.

She is, however, grateful to smell them at all because a decade ago she lost her sense of smell.

“I had thyroid cancer and had to have radioactive iodine therapy. One of the side effects was losing your sense of smell,” she says.

“Some people lose [their smell] forever and some people lose it for an amount of time.

“Waiting for it to come back was one of the hardest things I have ever done.”

Tanya’s sense of smell took around six months to return, but it can take longer.

“I joined a message board for thyroid cancer, and it was an incredible support, and many people experienced the same thing with a loss of smell,” she says.

Olfactory cells, which allow us to smell, are found in a tiny patch of tissue high up in the nose.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Associate professor of medical sciences at the University of Wollongong Theresa Larkin says, of the 12 cranial nerves in the brain, one relates to a person’s sense of smell.

Associate Professor Theresa Larkin teaches anatomy at the University of Wollongong.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Dr Larkin says it is the only one to have an external aspect because it starts in the nasal cavity.

“The nasal cavity, which is inside the nose, warms the air, humidifies the air, and filters the air that is on its way down to the lungs, which is important, but it also provides our sense of smell,” she says.

Dr Larkin says when neurons, or nerve cells, are damaged by toxins, viruses, and chemicals, they can heal quickly.

“The neurons that bring the smell information to the nose are unique in that they are regenerating all the time — every six weeks to three months,” she says.

“We think of taste from eating and our tongue, which has up to 5,000 taste buds each with many receptors, generally deciphers five flavours: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoury.

“However, it is our nose that brings in most information of the smell, which we perceive as taste.”

Winter aromas

Tanya has been farming the truffiere since 2020, long after she regained her sense of smell, but she still had reservations. 

“At first I was concerned because the truffle industry is very much dependent upon a sense of smell and being able to detect not only a truffle but whether or not it is at peak aroma, which determines whether it’s as valuable as it could be,” she says.

Robertson Truffles have 317 oak trees in their truffiere.(Supplied: Robertson Truffles)

However, through observation, she realises her nose is actually an asset.

“I think my sense of smell has increased, becoming more acute or more subtle,” she says.

“I am sure I can smell things other people cannot, but it’s maybe the smell training I did having a positive impact.” 

Tuber melanosporum, called the black truffle, Périgord truffle or French black truffle, is native to Southern Europe.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Thriving on frost 

While there are geological and climatological influences on truffle growing, frost is also an important and favourable factor.

“It was -2.9 [degrees Celsius] the other day, which is brilliant for truffles,” Tanya says.

“I go down there every day, lie on the ground, and smell them to check the aroma for harvesting them because … frost exponentially improves the aroma.”

Tanya Moroney’s nose is very busy during the short yet productive truffle season.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Winter does not, however, improve the ability of humans to detect aromas because cold, dry air is more damaging to the lining of our nasal cavity, causing it to produce more mucus.

“When you go for a walk on a cold morning, your nose runs even though you don’t have a cold,” Dr Larkin says.

“It’s a response to make the inside of the nasal cavity moist.

“The nasal cavity functions to warm and humidify the air we breathe in, so cold dry air makes the job more difficult because it has to work harder.”

Nobody loves a truffle more than Marilyn and Garth McKenzie’s truffle-hunting dogs that work with Tanya and Patrick Moroney.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Tanya says despite her refined ability to smell truffles and detect when they are ready for harvest, she still relies on specially trained dogs to find them.

“The dog detects truffle but not necessarily at peak aroma, so the truffle farmer decides whether to harvest or not,” she says.

“It is not like an avocado and won’t improve on the shelf.”

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