There’s something primordial about standing under an oak tree, leaden sky above, icy cold rain running down your back, watching a chocolaty dun-coloured dog scratch away at the surface of dank soil to identify the location of a dark, lumpy fungus.
Civilisation might have come a long way, but the ancient ritual of the truffle hunt to yield the jewel of the culinary world’s crown is no different today than it was in the fourth century BC. If it is ironic that, as our lives morph into a kind of techno-cyber space, the things we crave and value the most are the result of traditional rites and customs performed since time immemorial, then consider the market value of the humble truffle dog. Once merely the faithful companion of the peasant famer, truffle dogs today are responsible for locating the product to feed a burgeoning international luxury fresh produce market worth millions.
Frances Lee is truffle manager and dog trainer at the Manjimup Wine & Truffle Company (MWTC) located in the South West of Western Australia. A formidable figure, she hunts for truffles from 7am until dark every day on the property in season, using two dogs, Sunny, a kelpie-labrador cross who hunts for up to eight hours, and Izzie, who is learning the tricks of the trade. Sunny has worked in the truffle business for six years, completing her first truffle season aged six-months-old, while Izzie is a two-year-old beagle. The celebrities of the truffle business, Sunny and Izzie have their own Twitter blog at http://twitter.com/SunnyandIzzie. Two new dogs, both black labradors, are being trained to hunt truffles, one of them finding nine kilos of truffles in one day of this season alone, equating to $27,000.
Today we are hunting for truffles, so we don gumboots and overalls for the protection of the trufferie then jump on a wagon pulled by a tractor that takes us around the Manjimup property, stopping at prime hunting sites. A gaggle of noisy and aggressive geese, employed to keep the bugs down, follow the trail of the tractor. Then we are in the thick of it. Walking up and down rows of trees, following Fran and the dogs on the trail of the celebrated truffle scent. We don’t have to go far.
“Where is it?” commands Fran of Izzie. The dog scratches at the rich, fertile soil and sits, confirming she has detected the scent of Tuber Melanosporum, the black truffle. “Good dog.” A reward of chicken jerky is snapped up. Soil is carefully cleaved away by deft, cautious hands. There are no gloves on a truffle hunt: no manicures and no standing on ceremony. Fecund, crumbly earth gives way to small dark mounds. Fran is on her knees. She bends down, nose almost touching the earth and inhales. “Good dog,” she repeats quietly, slowly unearthing the prize with her own hands: some the size of a small stone, others as large as a cupcake. I offer my cupped palm and she drops two in, all roundish, earthy and cold. So this is the fabled black diamond, the Perigord Black Truffle, so named after the French district.
The dogs stop and sit at the next five or six trees we pass – a sign that they have detected the truffle aroma. Fran kneels again and digs, her hands deep in the soil. She unearths a truffle and puts it to the dogs nose. Sunny continues to sit: a sign that this is not the truffle she smelt and that there are more to unearth. Fran keeps digging. “Izzy, where?” she repeats, keeping the dogs sniffing for the aroma with her commands. Izzy keeps sniffing, keeps sitting, and more truffles are found. The dogs jump excitedly around Fran, eager to follow her to the next tree. More truffles are unearthed, some 20 grams, others larger. We move on. Tree after tree, truffles are detected and harvested. Then clusters are found. There’s a tangible sense of excitement as the truffle bag swells with our find.
As we walk, Fran explains why white truffles are not yet produced in Australia. “To produce white truffles, we have to imitate exactly the conditions in Europe, which is very difficult. They need the same soils, same plants around them, and the same water supply. It is hard to simulate those conditions here. “
But exactly what is all the fuss about? Why are these pungent, edible fungi so highly prized? And why so expensive? One reason is the decline in Europe’s truffle production (from 1800 to less than 50 tonnes a year in France alone). The consequent undersupply is said to be the result of urbanisation and climate change. With increased palate sophistication in emerging nations and escalating demand in developed countries, black truffle supply is under pressure, hence the price tag. A short season and the cost of establishing and running a trufferie also contribute to the cost.
There’s no shortage of mythology surrounding truffles, either, much of which simply adds to the conjecture about the origins of the fabled fungus. It’s said that as far back as 2400BC, people thought that rain and thunder were instrumental in truffle formation. Others parlayed the view that lightning created truffles, upon coming into contact with the earth, hence the truffle’s early moniker ‘children of the earth.’
Legends aside, the first truffle unearthed in Australia was found in Tasmania in 1999. Australia now produces about 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s black truffle market. By 2020, it is estimated Australia will produce 50 per cent of the world’s black truffles.
The MWTC was established in 1997 with 13,000 trees: 12,000 hazelnut and 1,000 oak – the theory being that if the truffle experiment failed, the company had a hazelnut market to fall back on. The site was chosen for its conditions, which were considered to be the closest in Australia to those in France. Their first truffle weighing 168gm appeared in 2003 when the trufferie was just seven years old. In 2004 MWTC harvested 10 kilograms of Perigord truffles. In 2005, just one day’s harvest netted 10 kilograms. The biggest icon truffle unearthed at the MWTC was 1.1 kilograms – the biggest ever found outside of France.
Dr Nicholas Malajczuk, a former CSIRO scientist with over 25 years experience studying fungus, was responsible for first establishing the MWTC trufferie, but it is Alan Nelson, the CEO of this now hugely successful enterprise, who drives it into international markets today: something he says is both “a passion and an obsession.”
Of breaking into the market, Nelson says, “The challenge is not easy. All agribusinesses face the challenges of mother nature as well as the creation of something new. But Australia is beginning to have a love affair with truffles, using them as the holy grail of ingredients.” He cites Romania, Turkey, Serbia and Croatia as growth areas for the truffle industry, suggesting a possible over-supply in coming years, as well as emerging quality control issues.
What comes out the ground each day at the Manjimup trufferie is a surprise: there is no uniformity to the size or shape of truffles, each is different. But Nelson is confident: “Our harvest this year should reach about 1.65 tonnes, he states. “About 75 per cent of this is for export, with the balance for domestic consumption. We are Australia’s leading producer of truffles.” Indeed, the 2009 season saw the MWTC unearth 890kgs of truffles, and the 2010 season is already over one tonne.
“In Europe, truffles are not considered to be an exotic, luxury item,” explains Nelson. “In France and Italy everyone knows about truffles and eats them in a variety of dishes. Our challenge is to grow the market and increase public awareness.”
Back at the MWTC cellar door, the head chef prepares a super-creamy scrambled eggs on hazelnut toast. As he deftly scrambles, then shaves truffle into the creamy eggs using a lemon zester, he confides that his favourite truffle dish is a white chocolate or mocha truffle cheesecake, where the truffle is added at the last minute before a slow bake in a low temperature oven.
Once the shiny, softly scrambled eggs are plated, chef slices a generous round of truffle over the dish. The intense, musty aroma drifts up. The anticipation is palpable. We want to taste it, to savour it. And then we do, experiencing the delight and pleasure in the earthy muskiness of truffles as people have done for centuries before us. We had hunted truffles in the rain with dogs. We harvested and we ate the product of our labour. The mystery of the truffle was a mystery no longer and we left with a taste for the enigmatic back diamond.
TRUFFLE FACT FILE
Truffles are the powerfully aromatic, edible fruiting body of the ectomycorrhizal fungus species. They are said to smell like the flavours of the forest: think intense musky, garlicky, nutty scents. Some say they smell like old socks and sex. It’s a myth oft perpetuated that truffles emit the pheromones of the opposite sex. Others say truffles smell like a male pig or like antiseptic mouthwash.
Truffles taste like nothing else. They are earthy and pungent in flavour and complement eggs, cheese, potatoes, pasta and cream, as well as scallops, crayfish, foie gras, asparagus and cabbage. Ingredients that enhance truffles include garlic, onion, chives, leek and celery root. Truffles can be eaten cooked or raw but, if cooked, should not be heated over 68 degrees.
Truffles are living organisms which, once unearthed, must be able to breathe, lest they break down and rot. Once purchased, wrap your truffle in paper towel inside stoneware with a sealable lid. Change the paper towel daily. Alternatively, sit the truffle on dry rice or rolled oats inside the sealed container. A truffle should last between 8-14 days stored in the fridge this way.
The secret life of truffles
- Truffles are a fungus, of which there are said to be hundreds of species. Highly prized as a luxury food item, references to them in early writings date back to the fourth century BC.
- Truffles have a symbiotic relationship with certain tree species. They grow underground on the roots of trees that have been inoculated with truffle spores and are found between five and 30 centimetres below ground, within a metre of the tree’s base.
- Most of the world’s black truffle production centres on Europe (France, Spain and Italy), and Australia. China also produces truffles, but they are considered inferior.
- Two truffle varieties stand out: the Tuber magnatum (the Italian white) and Tuber melanosporum (Perigord black) of France. The Italian white truffle has yet to be grown successfully under cultivation and is only harvested from natural forests in parts of Italy, France and Croatia.
- White truffles have a stronger aroma and flavour than black truffles, however, white truffles require specific climactic conditions and are difficult to grow in the southern hemisphere.
- Pigs were traditionally used to sniff out truffles, however pigs enjoy the taste of truffles, while dogs are trained not to eat them.
- In early times when the truffle was harvested from natural forests it was regarded as peasant food. In the 14th century, aristocracy began to procure and use truffles and it became elevated in status.
- Black truffles can be produced from trees (hazelnut, oak, chestnut and elm) as young as three years old. They range in weight from five grams to over one kilogram. White truffles can grow on willow and poplar trees.