Written and photographed by Zoe Roy
“The truffle is not exactly an aphrodisiac, but tends to make women more tender, and men more likeable”– Jean Antheleme Brillet-Savarin, renowned 17th century gastronome.
The history of truffles is older than one might think. In 300BC, truffles were already a sought after expensive delicacy.
They were the favourite dish of Pharaoh Cheops and in early writing were referred to as “children of the earth”. Legend has it that the first being on the planet to devour truffles was a female wild boar. A farmer watched the sow dig up and eat the presumably poisonous underground funghi and waited patiently for her to die. Instead she flew into a fit of passion and attracted so many lovesick suitors that the species began to proliferate in hot haste.
Now skip to 1997 when Australian CSIRO scientist Dr. Nick Malajczuk, specialising in trees and funghi started experimenting with some initial planting in Tasmania. He identified Manjimup in Western Australia as an ideal location for growing truffles. Hence was born the Hazel Hill Truffiére..
In 1998, 13,000 Oak and Hazel tree saplings were inoculated with the French Black Truffle. To do this, the Perigold truffles are made into a mush which is rubbed into the roots of the saplings.
At this early stage, Dr. Nick chose to use both oak and hazel with the foresight that if the truffles didn’t develop then they would at least have hazelnuts to harvest! More than 5 years of experimentation and anxious waiting passed and in 2003 the first truffle was uncovered accidently on a morning walk.
So it is here in Manjimup, we went truffle hunting…
Manjimup is a thriving agricultural centre, about 3 1/2 hours SE from Fremantle in Western Australia, a land of cherries, apples, pears, avocados, marron, and of course truffles.
A nice early road trip with my friend- head chef Peter Manifis landed us in Manjimup at 930am. We join another couple and began the tour with some history and truffle science.
This is followed by a breakfast of truffled scrambled eggs served on hazelnut bread, whipped up in front of us by the head chef of The Wine & Truffle Company. To wash it down we had a sneaky little glass of their well regarded Riesling. Good start to the day!
Next we were assigned gumboots and overalls and taken to the training area to meet the dogs. They have three prize hunters. Sunny- a kelpie, Lizzie- a beagle and Bella- a black lab.
In the training area they have set up rows of plastic trees, at the base of which there are little pieces of sponge. Some have a drop of truffle oil on them, and the others have a red cross. The dogs all have there own commands so that they know which one is working. It’s either “seek”, “go get it” or “find”. The dogs run from tree to tree and when they smell the truffle they sit and wait for a treat.
With training complete it’s time for the real thing! We all board the little wooden carriage, pulled by a tractor, to take us up to the truffiére. Before we board we must walk through water in our boots, yet another precaution they take to prevent any potentially harmful spores reaching the truffiére.
Once we are there, its all business and not even 2 minutes pass before Sunny has found a beauty. When a truffle is identified in the ground, the hunter first smells is to assess its state. Truffles are formed in November/December, grow through Feb/March and mature during the winter months. Only when a truffle is mature does it release its aroma.
When a truffle has matured it needs to be harvested within 3 days or it will begin to rot in the ground. A very small window! Once a truffle has been deemed mature, fingers and a small plastic needle are used to scrape the ground around the truffle until it is unearthed. Truffles can be found as deep as 60cm, and a single tree can produce up to 2.5kg each season.
Truffles are often found in clusters and a lot of small truffles can come together to form a very large truffle. Like the one we dug up, weighing about 430gms! Unfortunately we were not permitted to take it with us, and there are no pockets in the overalls they provided!
The Manjimup truffles typically sell for between $2000-$3500/kg, except for the “icon” truffles which are the largest ones ranging from 750g-1.5kg, which are usually auctioned on ebay for up to $6000/kg.
This year they expect to harvest 1tonne of black truffle. Australia is the biggest producer of French black truffles outside Europe and currently produce 15% of the world black truffles. Because of Europe’s rapidly decreasing production due to the age of the trees, it is predicted that by 2020, Australia will be producing 50% of the world’s truffles.
This little truffiére in Manimup is now exporting to 15 countries, including France.
Then we headed to the farm café for a beef pie on truffled mash and glass of shiraz before we hit the orchards to pick some vine-ripened Granny Smiths!
Back at the restaurant where we work in Fremantle, we were couriered 1kg of Manjimup truffles for our annual Truffle Dinner, which consisted of 100 people, 5 courses, 8 chefs and lots of truffles……
Woodfired Pizza Bianco with Shaved Truffle, Parmesan and Truffle Oil
Truffled Leek & Potato Soup
Marron & Truffle Omelette
Housemade Gnocchi with Wild Mushrooms & Marsala
Roasted Spatchcok with Truffle Butter (under the skin), Asparagus wrapped in Pancetta
Mielle Feille with Caramal Apples and Truffled Custard
At the end of the night we all realised we would be happy not to see or smell another truffle until next season!
At 16 working as a waitress I became captivated by the concept of creating flavour. The next 3 years I spent exploring Europe and UK, working in England, Ireland, Scotland, Turkey and finally 6 months in France working in a farmhouse ‘La Ferme du Mont Mussey’ at the foothills of the Jura mountains. It was here that my path was truly cemented for me…. The quest for food that still smells of the earth or the forest or the ocean it came from, and the creation of simple flavours that make your heart sing.
Back in Melbourne I began a catering business ‘Feed your Friends’. I provided fully personalised menus, catering for schools, hospitals, film sets, corporate, cocktail parties and dinner parties. After two years, at 21, I again craved the pace of a commercial kitchen… I became Head Chef of Montsalvat Café & Restaurant in Eltham, cooking European food with the help of a beautiful kitchen garden. After 1 year I was enticed by the excitement of Richmond Hill Café & Larder, which was to become my home for the next 4 years. Working alongside Stephanie Alexander and other wonderful chefs and top shelf ingredients in a professional environment kept me very stimulated. I finally bid farewell to Richmond Hill, and became Head Chef of The Commoner. A modern British restaurant in the heart of Fitzroy with a woodfire oven and a Moorish touch. This took me back to my travelling days and my first love affair with food, following the spice trail around the world.
Currently I have moved out west with my partner (also a passionate chef!) and we have plans to open a small and intimate European style bar in Fremantle. Watch this space!
So tell me, whats your favorite way to eat truffle?