on the truf­fle hunt

HOW ONE COU­PLE FELL IN LOVE WITH THE TRUF­FLE-FARM­ING LIFE­STYLE IN THE SOUTH­ERN FORESTS RE­GION OF WA.

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WORDS CLAIRE MAC­TAG­GART PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MARK ROPER

From June through un­til early Septem­ber, Mel Booth and her labrador retriev­ers spend most days hunt­ing the truf­ferie plan­ta­tions of the South­ern Forests re­gion of Western Aus­tralia. As con­trac­tors to var­i­ous grow­ers in the re­gion, their day starts early amid the hazel­nut and oak trees and there is of­ten a layer of frost on the for­est floor. “I love hear­ing the dogs crunch­ing through frost-cov­ered leaves,” says Mel, who some­times finds up to 100 kilo­grams a day of the black truf­fle, Tu­ber melanospo­rum. The dogs wear spe­cial boots on their front feet and are trained to paw the ground where they’ve picked up the scent of ripe truf­fles, so as not to dam­age the pre­cious fungi that can be found grow­ing on feeder roots in the hu­mus layer be­low the ground. “I en­joy be­ing out­side in the fresh air and calm of the plan­ta­tion with man’s best friend. The bond you have with your dog is quite spe­cial.” Mean­while, back at their Wil­garup River Farm just east of Manjimup, Mel’s hus­band Gavin grades truf­fles and pro­cesses or­ders from their own plan­ta­tion as well as those of the Aus­tralian Truf­fle Traders, which he and Mel es­tab­lished to pro­vide a con­duit to mar­ket for fam­ily grow­ers in the re­gion. Or­gan­is­ing sales to their in­ter­na­tional mar­kets that in­clude London, New York and Paris means he of­ten works through the night to make calls to north­ern hemi­sphere cus­tomers. Last year, the Aus­tralian Truf­fle Traders sold 1.3 tonnes from the South­ern Forests re­gion with 90 per cent go­ing to ex­port mar­kets. “We also ship any­where in Aus­tralia and I love that as­pect of help­ing peo­ple plan a din­ner party and talk­ing truf­fle to them, whether it’s a chef or a hus­band look­ing to im­press his beloved,” says Gavin. “Truf­fle adds an edge of mys­tique and in­ter­est to a dish.” Gavin, Mel and their seven-year-old son, Brin, have lived at the 55-hectare farm since 2009 and, along with their truf­fle plan­ta­tion, also grow heir­loom veg­eta­bles and run a herd of 50 An­gus, High­land and Here­ford breed­ers. It’s a world away from their for­mer lives — Gavin grew up in the Scot­tish High­lands and worked in the Royal Bri­tish Navy, and later with Aus­tralian Cus­toms Ser­vice on pa­trol boats. Mel also worked in Cus­toms as a han­dler of nar­cotics de­tec­tor dogs. For­tu­itously, the cou­ple met in 1997 on a square-rig sail­ing ship off Scot­land while Gavin was on leave from the navy and Mel was trav­el­ling and work­ing in the United King­dom. In 1998, they moved to Margaret River, where Mel had grown up, and worked var­i­ous jobs around Aus­tralia be­fore mov­ing into Cus­toms. Their in­ter­est in truf­fle farm­ing be­gan in 2007 af­ter watch­ing a seg­ment on Land­line. At the time, there were only two truf­fle farms in Western Aus­tralia so they trav­elled south to Manjimup to meet grow­ers and learn more about the in­dus­try. “The grower said the big­gest prob­lem was the dogs and at that stage Mel was in Cus­toms work­ing with them, so we trained one, came down and fell in love with the Manjimup area and life­style,” re­calls Gavin. They moved down from Perth about two years later and be­gan plant­ing 5.5 hectares of truf­fle-in­noc­u­lated hazel­nut and oak trees in the Karri loam soil, har­vest­ing their first truf­fle about four years af­ter that. “It’s been a long slow process,” Gavin ad­mits. “Peo­ple have been very gen­er­ous with their knowl­edge and the jour­ney is what it’s all about. There have been a cou­ple of set­backs and times when you’re on your bot­tom in the pad­dock with some­thing bro­ken in your hands and won­der why you are do­ing it. But over­all it’s been in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing — I’ve got a cook­book signed by Peter Gil­more of Quay restau­rant in Syd­ney and a menu from Din­ner by He­ston in London. It’s very hum­bling to have a prod­uct and have chefs like that in­ter­ested in it.” >

While their move to the coun­try and switch to the truf­fle in­dus­try has been a steep learn­ing curve, they have em­braced the lo­cal com­mu­nity and life­style. “It’s a re­ally nice friendly town,” adds Mel. “Brin can go out­side and I don’t have to worry about him. He’s very good with the dogs and he loves go­ing to the or­chard and watch­ing them dig up truf­fles.” Ini­tially, Mel’s scent-as­so­ci­a­tion train­ing with her dogs is rel­a­tively quick — usu­ally within a few weeks — but it takes much longer for them to de­velop their work ethic and be­come re­li­able in a com­mer­cial sense. Her dogs are part of the fam­ily and some work up to five days a week with Mel dur­ing peak truf­fle sea­son. “They en­joy the work; when I come to the ute I have six dogs want­ing to jump in the back. But for the rest of the year they are our pets,” she says. “Work­ing to­gether with Gavin on the farm is a lot dif­fer­ent to the life­style we both had work­ing sep­a­rate jobs in Perth. I couldn’t ask for a bet­ter en­vi­ron­ment to raise a fam­ily and I wouldn’t change it for the world.” For more in­for­ma­tion, visit aus­traliantruf­fle­traders.com or truf­fle­dogswa.com.au

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