A traditionally European delicacy thrives in WA, writes Maureen Dettre.
Bella the black Labrador is hunting truffles.
Within seconds she's pawing the ground, indicating there's a truffle embedded in the soil, waiting to be dug up. She makes her part look easy, but growing truffles is a tricky business - and lucrative, if you are patient.
Bella works at The Truffle & Wine Company in Manjimup in Western Australia, a region that has turned the elite truffle industry on its head by producing some of the world's best black gourmet treasures.
Truffles are a rare and expensive delicacy, edible fungi highly prized by elite chefs all over the world for their unique musty, garlicky, nutty flavour.
They have traditionally grown wild in the forests of Europe, supported by oak trees, but most are now cultivated by inoculating the roots of host trees with truffle spores so the fungus forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the host tree.
Producing truffles involves more science than most agriculture — which is why the brains behind the WA company, Dr Nick Malajczuk, is a CSIRO scientist who studied soil.
In 1997 he identified Manjimup as an ideal area, found investors, bought 53ha and imported spores from Europe to introduce to the roots of 13,000 oak and hazel trees.
It was six long years before they found the first truffle. It weighed 168g, was worth $500 — the first truffle found on the Australian mainland.
"It's not a get-rich-quick scheme," explains Deborah McLaren, the Truffle & Wine Co tour guide.
By 2004 the company was producing 4-5kg a year and that's steadily risen to 4-5 tonnes. The largest one ever dug up on the estate was 1.018kg in 2005.
Although in Europe pigs have traditionally been used to unearth the black treasure, dogs are used in Australia because they can be trained not to claw at the prized find.
"Chefs don't like that," McLaren said.
Labradors are used because they are natural retrievers, very motivated by food, but can take up to three years to be fully trained.
These days the Truffle & Wine Company is the biggest truffle producer in WA, producing about 60 per cent of the state's truffles. In turn, WA produces 70 per cent of Australia's truffles and Australia now produces 10 per cent of the world's truffles.
According to nztruffles.org.nz, there are about 30 productive truffieres in NZ, located between the Bay of Plenty and Invercargill, with many more throughout the country not yet producing truffles.
Current total truffle production in NZ is not known but is estimated to be 100-200kg a year.
Manjimup's Truffle & Co is now the biggest producer in the Southern Hemisphere and the biggest single truffle producer in the world.
"There's something magical about this little pocket in the southwest," McLaren said. "We've got very fertile soils that the truffles love."
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Perth. Manjimup is 300km south of Perth, about a three-and-a-half hour drive.
The Truffle and Wine Company is one of the few places in the world where visitors can participate in a truffle hunt. Hunts are available only from June to August and bookings are essential. The cellar door is open seven days from 10am-4pm; the Truffle Kitchen is open Thursday to Sunday 11am-3pm at 490 Seven Day Rd, Manjimup.
Further information: See westernaustralia.com