|Miracles in Manjimup|
by Sally Hammond
Errol’s onto something, we can see. Big and blonde, still young and an ex-security officer, he bounds ahead, focussed on his mission. His discovery could be hugely valuable. He could win respect for this. And more importantly when he locates the prize, he’s certain of his reward. A meaty-bite treat. He wags his tail expectantly. This is going to be a good day.
We’re a few steps behind cream coloured labrador, Errol, just enough to allow him some space to sniff and search. He learned that as a Quarantine and Customs dog at Perth Airport, and it’s much the same work now. Except these days his trophies are completely legal, just as highly prized, still with a heritage of history and intrigue.
I am almost as excited, not entirely sure I’ve seen a whole fresh truffle before. The closest has been nondescript black slivers garnishing an occasional expensive restaurant dish. Tell the truth, I am not sure I can see what all the fuss is about. Truffle oil hardly excites me. What is it that people go on about? The musky aroma, the erotic pungency. Oooh la la!
Australia has been talking about cultivating truffles for the past decade, with snippets of news from trufferies in Tasmania and NSW, but until now the finds have been so small that some wondered if black Perigord truffle production was destined for the southern hemisphere.
Enter the Wine & Truffle Company in Manjimup which in its first year harvested 125kg. Not much? These black beauties sell for a cool $2500-3000 a kilogram and ,with the help of Errol and his keen-nosed kennel mates, of course many times this can be unearthed.
Manjimup is located deep in the south-west of Western Australia, a couple of hours’ drive inland from Margaret River, three and a half hours from Perth. The weather is temperate, the ground good, so orchards, small farms and now some wineries, surround the former timber town. It’s ideal for truffles, too, and there’s another plus. Harvesting truffles in our winter means they may be exported to Europe (particularly France) in the northern summer, out of truffle season. Proof of the success of this project is that they are being met there with a delighted response.
As we stroll amongst thousands of hazelnut and oak trees scarcely taller than us (they were planted just ten years ago) we ask Errol’s wranglers, Damon Boorman and Susan Burlikowski, about the truffles. They are underfoot, we learn, attached by thin filaments to tree roots which have been inoculated with truffle spores.
Errol interrupts us, scratching the ground a couple of times, then stepping politely aside so Damon can decide if he‘s scented out a ripe one.
Damon crouches down, scoops up some moist earth in his hands and inhales. “We sniff dirt for a living,” he jokes. I smell it too, but get only a whiff of cabbage.
“Yep,” he says, “That one’s ready.” Then he gently, very gently, prizes out perhaps the ugliest luxury item on earth. We smell the truffle itself and it’s still hardly exceptional, not even as pungent as a mushroom.
Sue carefully slips the rugged beauty into a paper bag noting on it the number of the row and the tree. It appears a rather low-tech affair, this truffle hunting. A dog, a handler, a paper bag. However all this information will be entered on computer as in this imprecise science the scientific brains, notably Dr Nicholas Malajczuk, behind The Wine & Truffle Co are eagerly plotting which position and what factors affect the size and quality of each truffle.
Errol, blissfully unaware, races off for more adventure. In the hour or so we are with him he locates 2-3 kilograms of truffles ready for market. Some are small (perfect for export to Hong Kong) others are much larger. One whopper weighs in later at 600g, worth around $1800. Three years ago a one kilogram truffle was found.
Back in the centre, Damon gently scrubs the dirt from each truffle. They are black diamonds and treated accordingly. Many will be exported although there is a growing interest in them in Australia, and some local chefs are celebrating by creating entire truffle degustation dinners with every course (including dessert, sometimes) featuring this delicacy.
Just when things can hardly get better, we find it’s time for lunch in the cellar door cafe where, unsurprisingly, truffles dot the menu. As I bite into a surprisingly crunchy marbled black shaving, tasting it reverently, at first all I get is a faint flavour of hazelnuts – and a fleeting sense of disappointment. But then the magic happens. It’s all about the aroma I discover, and as we breathe and eat, the scent envelops us.
Long ago the Roman philosopher, Pliny, dubbed truffles ‘nature’s greatest miracle.’
Now I can see what he meant.
The Wine & Truffle Co., Seven Day Rd, (seven kilometres from Manjimup) Manjimup, Western Australia, 08 9777 2474.
One hour truffle hunts on Saturdays, 12.15pm (June-August). Bookings essential.
Cellar door and cafe, open daily, 10am-4.30pm.