There I stood, amidst a scenic expanse of wiry grape vines, and acre upon acre, row upon row of leafless hazelnut and oak trees. With the sun shining and a slight nip in the air, I was about to scavenger for black truffle in the most unlikely of places. From the looks of it I could have been in Perigord, France, but instead I was in Manjimup, Western Australia.
Situated about three and a half hours south of Perth lies a region of farmland where sheep outnumber people. Driving through The Great Southern one will note the endless rolling grass fields dotted with grazing cows, sheep, emu, and bison, in addition to the sporadic organization of grape vines. After a five day journey exploring WA’s southwestern corner I was en route back to Perth with one major stop planned: Manjimup.
Remember the name of this town, Manjimup. It’s the home to The Wine & Truffle Co., the single largest truffle farm in Australia. Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Napa buys black truffles during the summer from WA (our summer, WA’s winter), and even in France’s off-season Alain Ducasse purchases from Manjimup for Bureau d’Alain Ducasse at the Hotel Plaza Athenee in Paris. So, just for the record, these are not at all like the flavorless truffles grown in China. As some chefs that I’ve spoken to do think. I can assure you of that after eating these truffles for two weeks straight almost on a daily basis. I am confident that in the near future, once domestic chefs have the opportunity to taste WA’s bounty, they too will be impressed with the high quality and commence a cooking relationship. In the coming years I foresee Western Australia as a major exporter of truffles during the off-season of Italy and France.
In 1997, the 28 investors that comprise The Wine & Truffle Co. took a risk. They planted 12,000 hazelnuts trees and 1,000 oak trees, inoculated the roots with black truffle spores, specifically the Perigord truffle species, and sat back to wait. In 2003, six years after injecting the trees, The Wine & Truffle Co. discovered the first ever Western Australia truffle in Manjimup. One year later they made their first harvest.
Over the past few years, the truffle game has become a competitive industry in Australia. This year, three tons of Extra Class (the highest quality) truffles will be exported from Australia around the world, about half of which come directly from The Wine & Truffle Co., and about 20% from a neighboring farm.
So, I climbed aboard a truffle trolley and rode into the heart of the trufflery. Dogs versus pigs — that’s the big debate, right? The French traditionally hunted for truffles with pigs, though some now use certain breeds of dogs. In Manjimup, dogs are preferred over pigs since dogs don’t eat the truffle treasures, though pigs do. Also, The Wine & Truffle Co. ‘s head truffle hunter “Fran,” who is in charge of training the dogs, believes that many different breeds of dogs can be taught to hunt for truffles. On this afternoon in the woods, along with us came Sunny, a 6-year-old Kelpie-Labrador mix, and Izzie, a 3-year-old Beagle.
The ritual of a truffle hunt is one of the most fascinating behind the scenes experiences I’ve ever witnessed. Fran unleashes the dogs and immediately they take to the ground, sniffing away. Within seconds Sunny smells the first truffle of the day, scratching the earth with the swipe of a paw, at which point Fran instructs the dog to back up. Too much scratching can damage the truffle, which grows just under the surface of the ground, thus reducing its value.
With a metal pick, Fran digs a circle around the truffle, then carefully brushes the loose earth away, extracting one, maybe two, maybe five black diamonds. After examining the treasure for rot, she turns to Sunny and asks, any more? And then it’s off to the next.