A freshly dug black Perigord truffle.
For fungi lovers, the truffle is the highlight of this year’s miserable winter – there is nothing like the divine, sexy smell of a fresh truffle. If you haven’t tried it before, do it now, before the season is over.
Instead of heading to the Mundaring truffle festival this year, we’ve headed straight to the source. It’s a nippy winter morning when we drive past gorgeous pastures on the way to the Wine & Truffle Company in Manjimup. Somewhere along the way, the scenery changes from bare vines to an orchard flush with golden leaves. At the sight of the hazelnut trees we know we’ve arrived.
Orchard of hazelnut trees.
Truffled scrambled eggs.
A distinct truffle aroma wafts from the cosy cafe, which houses both the wine cellar door and education area. In the titillating warmth, our truffle hunt group is educated in the art and science of truffle hunting. The truffle spore tuber melanosporum is innoculated into a hazelnut or oak tree sapling and forms a symbiotic relationship with the tree’s roots. It takes 6 years from innoculation to (possibly) finding a truffle. The first truffle found on the property was the size of a cricket ball, weighing over 160 grams. From then on, the truffle farm has turned over increasing yields year after year. 2011’s yield is expected to be over 4 tonnes.
However, harvesting a mature truffle does not guarantee a saleable truffle. The truffle may be damaged, over exposed to the elements or worse, have rot. From the outset it is a huge investment. From digging, to cleaning and grading, it’s all done by hand.
Our breakfast of scrambled eggs are a good way to eat truffle, as fatty or creamy foods heighten the pungent, nutty aroma. On the other hand, acidic foods (like citrus) tend to overpower and diminish the taste of truffle. The chef has stretched the truffle even further by infusing the scrambled eggs with flecks of truffle. Proving the adage more is more, further truffle is grated over the creamy, cohesive eggs. Served on hazelnut bread, the dish is heady, decadent and delicious. By the last bite, we are ready to hunt!
Like scientists hunting for an alien spore we pull on our gear. In fashionable (!) blue jumpsuits and wellington boots, we brave the weather and trudge out to the tractor wagon.
The flock of ‘guard geese’ – natural insect and pest control agents for the orchard.
Moving slowly to the upper orchards, truffle harvesting is well underway. The hazelnut trees, interspersed with oak trees, are almost stark, leaving the orchard floor bare and ready for harvest. Electric fencing surrounds the orchard, protecting the $3000/kg crop. Believe it or not, truffles have been stolen from the ground – which is a herculean effort considering a trained dog or pig has to come along!
Traditionally, pigs were used to hunt truffles. Truffle aroma is similar to the boar sex pheromone, sending sows crazy with lust. Though pigs are have the innate ability to hunt truffles, they will not part with them and will eat any fingers between them and the truffle… Dogs, however are much more obedient.
Left: Sunny and her trainer, Fran. Right: Sunny and Izzy.
And that’s where we meet Izzy and Sunny, two of the company’s truffle dogs. Prized for their noses, they’ve been trained to sniff out truffles on command and have a close relationship with their trainer Fran, who lives and cares for them. The dogs are utterly adorable and full of personality (Izzy is a princess; Sunny is dutiful – most of the time.)
Though Izzy has a typical beagle’s short attention span, Sunny needs no command to start work. Her long kelpie tail whips around from row to row, her nose to the ground, anxious for a whiff. Once she has found a scent, she paws at the ground. The mature truffle is dug out and Sunny will confirm if there are any more truffles in that spot, as they are often found in clusters.
Sunny wandering the rows, hunting truffles.
Helping to dig out the truffle.
When paws just won’t do.
At one tree, Sunny gets particularly excited – she has found an amazingly fragrant (and high grade) truffle. Intensely odorous, it can be smelled even by our puny human noses above the ground and the surrounding soil is infected with its perfume. The golf ball sized truffle is nubby and the colour of coal. As we handle it, out fingers and palms (and noses) start to smell like it.
It’s an amazing crop from the providence of a hot summer and wet winter – both needed for a successful harvest of truffles. The truffle grows and swells in the heat of summer and ripens in the cold of winter. Along the rows, between the crunch of fallen hazelnuts, we spot immature, copper coloured truffles swelling through the surface.
The new truffle dog in training. Just kidding – he’s smelling the high grade truffle (and surrounding soil) before it is dug out. Truffle aroma can range from mild and soapy to rich and stinky.
Two smaller truffles spotted by Sunny. If you look closely, tiny root tendrils of which the truffles form a symbiotic relationship are still attached.
A delicious, high grade truffle.
Mature truffles are ripe for about three days in the ground and if not dug up, break down into the soil. However, there are not yet enough resources (and dogs) to cover the whole property, meaning some truffles inevitably will be lost. Even so, during winter harvesting continues though rain, hail or shine, with sorting and grading continuing well into the night.
An immature truffle still in the ground. Immature truffles do not give off the same scent as mature ones and are a lighter, orange hue.
The truffle farm’s hot spot for harvests. The scientists on site are trying to determine what factors influence truffle growth and numbers from this part of the orchard.
Chugging through the orchard, our guide points out a particularly dense area of oak trees. It’s a hot spot for truffles, with frequent harvests of small sized product. Truffle growth is influenced by a myriad of factors and is for most part, still a mystery. Being a commercial venture, there’s a huge emphasis on yield. The commercial nature of the orchard does diminish the romanticism I associate with truffles (i.e. old French guy with a truffle pig in a wild forest), but our eyes have been opened to the hard work and hope, which brings truffles to our tables in the city.
We pull off our protective clothing and with some difficulty (I have fat calves) pull off the boots. The tour has made us famished for a truffly lunch in the cafe. Our decadent lunch is a story for another day.
The Wine & Truffle Co
Seven Day Road, Manjimup WA 6258 (7 kms from Manjimup)
T: (08) 9777 2474
Truffle hunts are available during truffle season, between June and August. For cost and details, refer to the website.
Open 7 days a week, 10.30am – 4.30pm
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