The Great Truffle Hunt
Few things go together better than wine and truffles, and few people know that better than the Wine & Truffle Co. The Manjimup-based company is our supplier of black Perigord truffles, so named for the region in France where they grow naturally. Also known as “black gold” or the “diamond of the kitchen”, the rarified fungus is considered by many to be one of the most precious foods on the planet, and can sell for up to $2,000 a kilogram. Truffle season is, for good reason, highly anticipated here in the kitchen at the Red Cabbage, as we love to dream up delicious and innovative ways to show off their uniquely earthy flavour.
So as you can imagine, we couldn’t wait to head down south to try and sniff some out! Arriving at the Wine & Truffle Co. estate, we were greeted by rows and rows of trees planted about a foot apart and stretching as far as the eye could see. We learned that they were hazelnut and oak trees, because these are the two species that truffles are particularly partial to, growing under and round the trees’ root systems. In some parts of the world, such as France and Italy, truffles occur naturally, growing in the soil around the trees that have the truffle mycelium on their roots. Here at the Wine & Truffle Co’s Hazel Hill property, the host trees are inoculated with the truffle fungus and planted in a “truffière” or truffle orchard.
The peak season for truffles is winter, which is when they are at their best and most flavourful. Here in WA the season runs from late May or early June through until mid-to-late August. When we visited in the first week of August, this year’s harvest was almost ready to wrap up. But we were still lucky enough to witness a truffle hunt and meet the well-trained noses that are used to detect the delicacy’s pungent scent.
The tails we saw weaving in and out the rows and rows of truffle trees – around 40-odd kilometres in total – didn’t belong to pigs, which were traditionally used to dig out truffles in Europe, but to the orchard’s crack team of truffle hunting hounds. The adorable four-legged family includes Izzie the roly poly Beagle, a very bouncy black Labrador named Bella, and Sunny, a Kelpie X Labrador. Before the start of each season, they undergo a rigorous training program, and their keen snouts can detect truffles 30cms below the earth’s surface from up to 50 metres away, with amazing accuracy. And we were told the dogs can sniff their way around the 13,000 oak and hazelnut trees in less than a week! Last year, star hunter Sunny sniffed out over 1.5 tonnes of truffles – worth around $3 million. (As you can imagine, she gets plenty of treats!)
Up until only recently, truffles were grown largely only in Europe. To this day, the primary producers are France, Italy and Spain. But production has been dwindling. With demand increasing and harvests in Europe decreasing, some enterprising Aussies decided to try their hand at truffle farming, and the climate in WA’s South West offered ideal conditions. The Wine & Truffle Co. had their first harvest of 400 kilograms in 2004. Since then, the volume has grown each year, with the 2011 season producing approximately 2.5 tonnes of the edible black gold, making them the largest truffle producer in the southern hemisphere.
We feel so lucky have such an amazing supplier in our own backyard, because with truffles, it’s all about freshness – their distinctive flavour only lasts around seven to 10 days. When we do get our hands on them, we use these fragrant fungi to perfume a wide variety of dishes. Regulars love our roasted partridge – the finely shaved slices of truffle that we layer under the skin infuse the meat with the deliciously earthy flavour and aroma. Truffles are also perfect in risotto, and we’ve even used them to gently flavour truffle ice cream and truffle crème brûlée.
Store truffles in rice to keep them dry for longer (moisture is their enemy), then use that rice for a fragrant risotto and shower it with the truffle’s shavings.
Or, store fresh truffles in a large airtight jar with eggs for a couple of days to infuse the yolks with the tasty aroma for the best scrambled eggs you’ll ever taste!