BLACK GOLD RUSH

Ju­dith Elen hunts for truf­fles in the hills south of Perth

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

WILD winds and tor­ren­tial rains sweep the coun­try, buf­fet­ing the south­ern states. I’m at the southerly edge of West­ern Aus­tralia, at the tip of the Dar­ling Range, in Man­jimup. It sounds as though some­one above is up­end­ing a gi­ant wa­ter tank on to the metal roof of the farm­house, my shel­ter for the night. Trees lit­ter the land­scape and power lines are down.

In Man­jimup, an im­por­tant branch of the coun­try’s truf­fle in­dus­try is poised to blos­som. There’s high ex­cite­ment in the air, so we might as well have all the trim­mings. For the few days I’m here, the rain only lets up for a cou­ple of sun­streaked hours on my last morn­ing. We seize the mo­ment and ven­ture out in sturdy wellies to hunt for black di­a­monds. I’m at the Wine & Truf­fle Com­pany, es­tab­lished in 1997, first with vine­yards and ex­tend­ing to truf­fles nearly 10 years ago.

The com­pany’s orig­i­nal Hazel Hill truf­ferie be­gan with 13,000 hazel­nut trees, their roots in­oc­u­lated with truf­fle spore. Last year they found 125kg of truf­fles; this year 168kg have al­ready been har­vested and the ed­u­cated guess is for a to­tal of about 400kg. Four or five times as many trees are pro­duc­ing truf­fles. And there are new plant­ings of 28,000 oaks at nearby Oak Val­ley.

Black Perig­ord truf­fles ( tu­ber­me­lanospo­rum ) are the world’s best, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the rare white truf­fles found only in ar­eas of Italy and Croa­tia. Th­ese are France’s black princess, or black di­a­mond, de­sired by the world and in di­min­ish­ing sup­ply.

We’re out this morn­ing, in this snatch of sun­shine, pac­ing be­tween rows of hazel­nut trees, moss and leaf mould un­der­foot. Er­rol and Skye, a black and a white labrador, run from tree to tree, snuf­fling the roots. Rain span­gles the sparse au­tum­nal leaves, and the mot­tled trunks and branches are sharply de­fined against a wide, change­able sky.

The dogs are de­lighted to be out af­ter the vi­o­lent weather. When they pick up a scent of truf­fle, they give the earth a sin­gle scratch and the men take over, gen­tly scrap­ing the soil away and sniff­ing the ground. Nor­mally they mark the spot and come back later or the dogs get bored, but this morn­ing we have a close look to see what’s there.

There are lots of finds. The dogs can sniff out the fun­gus buried deep be­low. Dog han­dler Da­mon Boor­man scoops some sur­face soil where a buried truf­fle has been de­tected, holds it out for me to sniff and, there it is, that rich smell, faint but un­mis­tak­able though the fun­gus might be sev­eral cen­time­tres down.

Sud­denly there’s a flurry of ex­cite­ment. Brush­ing away the earth like arche­ol­o­gists, Boor­man and sci­en­tist Nick Mala­jczuk have un­earthed a black nugget that fills the lat­ter’s palm. It looks to weigh 500-600g, per­haps worth $2000 re­tail. The aroma is amaz­ing. We pho­to­graph and sniff it, and ev­ery­one tells a story.

‘‘ It was July 28, 2003, at 3.30pm,’’ Mala­jczuk an­nounces, gaz­ing into the dis­tance, ‘‘ when we found our first truf­fle.’’ I can imag­ine the ex­cite­ment. It was Guin­ness — his black labrador­golden re­triever cross, now 15 and a bit of a leg­end — that found it. That truf­fle was also the first on the main­land. It weighed 168g. The first found in Aus­tralia was in Tas­ma­nia in 1999.

Mala­jczuk is the re­searcher at the Wine & Truf­fle Co. He’s a for­mer CSIRO forestry sci­en­tist with a doc­tor­ate in the field, but is tread­ing un­known ter­ri­tory as he in­ves­ti­gates dif­fer­ent ways of do­ing things in south­ern hemi­sphere truf­fle pro­duc­tion.

In France, truf­fles have ap­peared nat­u­rally on the roots of for­est trees for cen­turies, prob­a­bly mil­len­nia. Now, as out­put plum­mets in France, gov­ern­ment re­searchers there are telling truf­fle farm­ers about new, sci­en­tific mea­sures, but they don’t lis­ten. Or they lis­ten, then go home and do it the old way, French chef Alain Fabregues of the Loose Box restau­rant at Mun­dar­ing, a few hours’ drive from here, tells me later.

In WA, Mala­jczuk is get­ting strong re­sults from his tree-face re­search, look­ing at why one tree pro­duces a truf­fle and the next one doesn’t, at sizes, fer­til­i­sa­tion (ev­ery­thing here is or­ganic), and much more. He knows more than enough to ask the right ques­tions. (The com­pany has a three-year gov­ern­ment grant of $250,000 an­nu­ally, and col­lab- ora­tive re­search projects are un­der way with WA’s three univer­si­ties.)

One of the world’s supreme nat­u­ral lux­u­ries, truf­fles have been the exclusive do­main of the north­ern hemi­sphere, no­tably France and Italy. But the in­dus­try is rapidly es­tab­lish­ing it­self in Aus­tralia, and with yields down in France, this is a sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment.

Truf­fles are a unique fu­sion of ro­mance and deep earth­i­ness. Dan­ger­ous, even di­a­bol­i­cal, in Euro­pean mythol­ogy — akin to the green fairy, ab­sinthe — the princesse noire was thought in the mid­dle ages to be the vis­i­ble sign of dev­ilry, born of the earth yet po­tent and mys­te­ri­ous. Th­ese nuggets of black fungi that grow on the roots of oak or hazel­nut trees con­nect heaven and earth. It’s dif­fi­cult with truf­fles to stay earth­bound. To in­hale their pun­gent aroma is to be plunged into the realm of the for­est floor, dark earth, buried roots, de­cay­ing leaves; to taste them is to be trans­ported. And to eat truf­fles at the Loose Box is to go straight to the source. Fabregues also has truf­fle trees: oaks rather than hazel­nuts, be­cause of the soil. ‘‘ If it doesn’t work, at least I’ll have a beau­ti­ful oak for­est,’’ he says. But if progress con­tin­ues, he be­lieves Aus­tralia could be the world’s prime pro­ducer.

Fabregues’s con­tact in France, Jac­ques Pe­beyre of Mai­son Pe­beyre in Ca­hors, es­tab­lished in the 19th cen­tury and de­scribed in a French truf­fle ar­ti­cle as ‘‘ a house of se­ri­ous pro­fes­sion­als who guar­an­tee the qual­ity of their prod­ucts’’, is the Euro­pean agent for the Wine & Truf­fle Co. This is the big league. And truf­fles have been sent to French chefs Joel Robu­chon and Alain Du­casse: Fabregues says they were im­pressed.

Truf­fles are such a lux­ury that even in France per­haps 80 per cent of chefs may not have han­dled them, Fabregues tells me. Chefs have to learn how to nur­ture their flavour and aroma. Truf­fles are at their very best warmed, not fiercely cooked, and blos­som with creamy eggs, pasta, souf­fles and sweet seafood such as scal­lops and mar­ron.

Myths aside, truf­fles con­tinue to be mys­te­ri­ous. From a prac­ti­cal point of view, there is much that is un­known about their growth. Tas­ma­nia was the first state to go down the truf­fle trail, but yields have not been great. Tas­ma­nia lacks the Mediter­ranean cli­mate truf­fles need: cold in win­ter and hot in sum­mer.

Here at Man­jimup, the cli­mate is close to that of Perig­ord and other French truf­fle-grow­ing ar­eas, and Mala­jczuk ma­nip­u­lates the soil to equate with French soils. To get har­vests in per­spec­tive, 19th-cen­tury France pro­duced more than 1000 tonnes an­nu­ally; 35 tonnes is now con­sid­ered a good year. Last year it was 15 tonnes and pre­dic­tions are for 22-23 tonnes this year. France and Italy com­bined are pro­duc­ing 50-80 tonnes a year and this past win­ter Spain pro­duced 30 tonnes.

There are hun­dreds of small pro­duc­ers in Provence alone. With 30 or so truf­feries ap­proach­ing the Wine & Truf­fle Co’s out­put, Aus­tralia would be in the same ball park as the French (their black mar­ket fig­ures aside, of course).

There are var­i­ous small pro­duc­ers across Aus­tralia, some­times known only to their im­me­di­ate restau­rant cus­tomers, of­ten by word of mouth. Five Acre Nurs­ery, also in Man­jimup, sup­plies Si­mon John­son in the east­ern states.

Ru­mours and ob­scure trails some­times echo, ever so faintly, the labyrinthine truf­fle world of the south of France. The big dif­fer­ence is that here pro­duc­tion is grow­ing. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Tourism West­ern Aus­tralia and the Mun­dar­ing Truf­fle Fes­ti­val.

Check­list

The Wine & Truf­fle Co, Seven Day Road, Man­jimup, WA, is about 31/ hours’ drive from Perth, about two hours from Mar­garet River; 230km from Mun­dar­ing. Cel­lar door and cafe: 10am to 4.30pm, Wed­nes­day to Sun­day and pub­lic hol­i­days. House-pre­pared prod­ucts are on sale at the cafe, in­clud­ing truf­fle but­ter, truf­fle oils and truf­fle salt, as well as fresh hazel­nuts and hazel­nut items (a bonus byprod­uct of the truf­ferie ), and the com­pany’s cool­cli­mate wines. Truf­fle hunts are held on Satur­days from early June to Septem­ber 1; par­tic­i­pants must be at the cel­lar door by 12.15pm. A one-hour hunt, with wine tast­ing, is $55 a per­son; with wine tast­ing and lunch, $99 a per­son. More: www.wine­andtruf­fle.com.au.

The truf­fles I’ve seen: Da­mon Boor­man fol­lows the lead of his truf­fle hunters in Man­jimup, main; a prized find, top left; and Loose Box chef Alain Fabregues

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