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