Play­ing in the dirt is a skill that’s not to be sniffed at

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

EX­CITE­MENT is high across the coun­try over re­cent food de­vel­op­ments: the loos­en­ing of im­port re­stric­tions on un­pas­teurised cheeses and Ital­ian and Span­ish hams (pro­sciutto and ja­mon), the ban lifted from cooked and part-cooked (mi-cuit) foie gras. But one of the head­i­est de­vel­op­ments of all is not an im­port; in fact, it has fast be­come a valu­able ex­port. Aus­tralian-grown black Perig­ord truf­fles are find­ing their way on to ta­bles at home, too.

Through­out win­ter (the south­ern hemi­sphere truf­fle sea­son lasts un­til late Au­gust), home-grown truf­fles have been on the menus of high-end restau­rants across Aus­tralia. Tu­ber­me­lanospo­rum is a high­priced com­mod­ity with an earthy, hand­son prove­nance. Truf­fles grow on the roots of trees, be­low the sur­face of the soil, some­times buried as deep as 15cm- 20cm.

How to sniff them out? Un­til now, work­ing dogs in Aus­tralia have been sheep or cat­tle dogs. But Skye and Er­rol, a black and a white labrador, are val­ued mem­bers of staff at the Wine & Truf­fle Co in West­ern Aus­tralia’s truf­fle-grow­ing re­gion of Man­jimup. They’re the fin­ders.

Da­mon Boor­man, dog han­dler with the W&TC, prob­a­bly un­der­stands dogs as much as he does truf­fles. For five years a han­dler with Aus­tralian Cus­toms in WA, Boor­man went on to su­per­vise Cus­toms dogs train­ing be­fore join­ing the W&TC.

The com­pany’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Wally Ed­wards and sci­en­tist Nick Mala­jczuk make up our lit­tle ex­pe­di­tion, with Boor­man and me, Skye and Er­rol, as we set off from the truf­ferie farm­house one cold, glit­ter­ing morn­ing in early July. We pace be­tween rows of hazel­nut trees on the orig­i­nal 13,000-tree farm, with moss and leaf mould un­der­foot, as Skye and Er­rol run from tree to tree, snuf­fling the roots.

Sun­light re­flects in the droplets of early rain span­gling the trees and the mot­tled trunks and branches are sharply de­fined against a wide, change­able sky.

The dogs are as de­lighted as we are to be out. When they pick up the scent of truf­fle, they give the earth a sin­gle scratch with a del­i­cate paw and the men take over, gen­tly scrap­ing the soil away and sniff­ing the ground. In a nor­mal search, the men would mark the spot and come back later, but this morn­ing we have a close look. 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 ac­tual fun­gus might be sev­eral cen­time­tres down.

Boor­man tells me they have five labradors and a weimaraner, and each has its pe­cu­liar­i­ties. A labrador is eas­ily bored and can work for only an hour at a time (which is why finds are nor­mally marked with a coloured tag, to be checked later). Weimaran­ers, bred to spring and re­trieve, can con­tinue for much longer.

The labradors have a more highly de­vel­oped sense of smell — they are in the top five of doggy snif­fers; weimaran­ers in the top 20— but Boor­man ex­plains that at this el­e­vated level of sniff­ing skill the dif­fer­ence is mar­ginal. The dogs take two months to train and at least a six-month sea­son of train­ing and search­ing to fully de­velop that strong sense that can dis­tin­guish the faintest buried aro­mas.

Boor­man starts with a tea towel and a ten­nis ball that have been kept in a con­tainer with truf­fles, and plays games with the dogs and the towel, pro­gress­ing to games throw­ing the towel or ball into long grass, then hid­ing them. Once out train­ing among the trees, Boor­man shifts be­tween game play­ing and truf­fle hunt­ing, with the oc­ca­sional Good-oh com­ing into play.

Boor­man’s train­ing sys­tem is re­fined from the prin­ci­ples he used when train­ing Cus­toms dogs (though the dogs that come out to sniff at your bags on the air­port bag­gage re­trieval floor are worked for a mere five min­utes at a stretch, to pre­vent them from be­com­ing dis­tracted). Boor­man says the dogs learn from each other, the labradors es­pe­cially be­ing very com­pet­i­tive. For this rea­son they work with two dogs at a time along par­al­lel rows of trees. Some dogs have a more sen­si­tive nose and more ma­ture dogs be­come quickly bored, so in teams they urge each other on: per­haps they look on it as just an­other game.

This morn­ing, Skye is a bit slow (she’s older and I know how she feels), while Er­rol scam­pers about, find­ing truf­fle af­ter truf­fle; but I can see how they work off each other.

Mala­jczuk’s black labrador-golden re­triever cross, Guin­ness, now 15, found the farm’s first truf­fle. That was on July 28, 2003. It weighed 168g and was the first found on the main­land (the first Aus­tralian truf­fle was un­cov­ered in Tas­ma­nia in 1999). I’ve met Guin­ness. I was in­tro­duced to her as we set out this morn­ing. She’s a bit of a leg­end, ap­par­ently, and Mala­jczuk says she has her tree marked out for when she dies. And she can find it, too. The Wine & Truf­fle Co holds vis­i­tor­par­tic­i­pa­tion truf­fle hunts, talks and tast­ings dur­ing the sea­son; book­ings nec­es­sary. www.wine­andtruf­fle.com.au.

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