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