Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsOak Trees

AUSTRALIA

Earthy nirvana Down Under

Truffle-sniffing dogs, 'punters' and towering karri forests: Welcome to South Western Australia, an Eden in the rough for food and wine lovers.

August 30, 2009|Krista Simmons

PEMBERTON, AUSTRALIA — The previous night's winter storm has subsided, and the rising sun now punctures holes in the morning mist, casting the lush karri forest in a gentle silhouette. With the windows open, I cruise down the eucalyptus-lined highway.

My eyes are on the road, but my mind is on the mission. I am prospecting for black gold. And I will find it here in Western Australia, 3 1/2 hours south of Perth.

This is not the outsized outback of red dirt and snapping crocs and sweltering heat. South-Western Australia is a distinct territory -- verdant, enchanting and largely untouched

The treasure lies in the Great Southern Forests region, in groves of oak and hazelnut trees, away from the typical tourist spots of Oz. Sometimes, I think I am the sole proprietor of this secret, but then I remember that Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria and Michael Mina know it too -- so well that they're already using Western Australia's Perigord black truffles, this black gold, this diamond of the kitchen, in their restaurants around the world.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Australian truffles: An article about hunting for truffles in Australia in the Aug. 30 Travel section incorrectly identified one of the trees that has a symbiotic relationship with Perigord truffles. The delicacies are interdependent on oak and hazelnut trees, not oak and chestnut trees.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 06, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Australian truffles: An article about hunting for truffles in Australia in the Aug. 30 Travel section incorrectly identified one of the trees that has a symbiotic relationship with Perigord truffles. The delicacies are interdependent on oak and hazelnut trees, not oak and chestnut trees.

France has historically been king of the Perigord truffle, but unexpectedly low yields there, coupled with a huge projected harvest from the Southern Forests township of Manjimup, have turned this corner of Australia into the promised land for foodies, chefs and mycologists, the branch of botany whose focus is fungi.

As a curious gastronome and hands-on-learner, I've come here to learn more about the cultivation of this fungus, which, with a few swipes from a grater, transforms a dish from "ho-hum" to "oh yum!" It's been a few years since my last visit to Western Australia, where I worked at vineyards and sustainable farms, trying to absorb as much gastronomic knowledge as possible. The emergence of the black truffle industry -- and the hunts organized for tourists -- has brought me, and other travelers, here.

On the hunt

Though I'm a fearless foodie, I wasn't expecting the 7 inches of rain that fell the day before we were to experience la cavage, the French term for "the harvest." But the weather was no hindrance to our ragtag group of seven curious gourmands, or to the truffles either.

Damon Boorman, head truffle hunter and operatons manager at the Wine & Truffle Co. in Manjimup, emphasizes that rain is critical to the Mediterranean climate in which Perigord truffles thrive.

Boorman talks truffle as if he grew up in the biz, but his previous career was training drug dogs for the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. Now he preps the six pups at the Wine & Truffle Co. to sniff out the pungent fungi, which grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with the chestnut and oak trees.

Traditionally, truffle hunters -- the Aussies call them "punters" -- have used pigs to track their prey. More recently, punters have started using dogs, which, unlike pigs, will settle for a biscuit instead of chowing down on the truffle.

It's not just what does the hunting and where it's done that have changed. Research and development have become increasingly important. Since the first truffle was harvested in 1996 in Tasmania, the Australian government has funded two grants for research, hoping to demystify the Perigord's unpredictable growing patterns.

The need for this type of research becomes clear on my hunt. Although each tree has been inoculated with the same spore solution -- a secret recipe that Boorman credits for Wine & Truffle's success -- some areas are producing robustly, and others are not.

But Errol and Skye (yellow and chocolate labs, respectively) are poised, wagging and ready for the hunt. As we venture into the orchard, they sniff and scratch the ground every few feet, signaling a ripe truffle. Boorman and his wife and co-hunter, Sue Burlikowski, dig out the first few truffles for show, then start marking the finds with flags so the dogs don't get bored or tired waiting for their masters.

Tread lightly, they tell us, so as not to disturb the buried treasure. Boorman hands me one of the truffles, and I cradle $600 worth of earthy-tasting, pungent black gold.

After an hour that includes oohing and aahing at nuggets -- they resemble that proverbial lump of coal kids dread getting at Christmas -- we head back to the Wine & Truffle's cafe and cellar, where we taste some wine and wait for lunch. I've worked up quite an appetite meandering around the truffiere, or truffle orchard.

We return through the cleaning and packaging area, saturated with an aroma like that of damp dirt and day-old socks. It's hard to believe this musty fungi, which during the Dark Ages was considered peasant food, is now one of the most coveted and expensive culinary products on the market, fetching about $85 an ounce. The gold analogy may be overblown -- the yellow metal sells for nearly $950 an ounce -- but truffles taste much, much better.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|