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Hunting for truffles in Western 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 Adrià and Michael Mina know it too -- so well that they're already using Western Australia's Périgord black truffles, this black gold, this diamond of the kitchen, in their restaurants around the world.
France has historically been king of the Périgord 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 Périgord 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 Périgord'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 truffière, 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.
My proof: I order a humble Aussie meat pie and mash, over which the waitress shaves a profuse amount of truffle. The aroma transforms the dish into a sensory memory on which future cravings will be based. At lunch, I sample some of my fellow punters' meals, including the salt and pepper squid with shaved truffle. It's an odd pairing, but the truffle complements the savory seafood. Another memory for the taste bud scrapbook.
I welcome the sit-down lunch. It's been tough finding an open restaurant except at Stonebarn, Pemberton's boutique stone lodge that I'm splurging on. It's midwinter Down Under, and the few restaurants in Pemberton have closed for their own holiday. Several of the region's wineries have cafes, but those are also shuttered during these months.
Even if I could have eaten elsewhere, I really didn't want to. Michael Comyns is an excellent chef and host. Each night, he prepares stunning winter dishes that warm my rain-dampened bones -- snapper with pecan crust atop a sweet potato mash one night and perfectly cooked rack of lamb with spicy bean ragout the next.
The accommodations at Stonebarn are the essence of rustic elegance. (The roads were flooded during my visit, which meant I had to take a round-about route to get to Stonebarn, fording small rivers -- it doesn't get more rustic than that.)
But the place is quiet, secluded, quaint and cozy, and the attention to detail charms me. Rooms are stocked with L'Occitane toiletries. Fresh bush flower bouquets are placed in the room each morning. And the furry rug next to the canopy bed makes getting up each morning a pleasure -- almost.
Some mornings, I linger on my balcony, peering at the rolling hills blanketed with giant karri trees, gazing at this eucalyptus species that grows so large I consider them the sequoias of the Southern Hemisphere.
With several walking trails in the giant karri forest and a quaint fishing pond, Stonebarn makes an ideal refuge. It's difficult to pry myself away from the place, but the same thing that has drawn me to Pemberton in the first place also leads me out: food, glorious food.
A passion for food
My last day in the Southern Forests is the first gathering of the Southern Forests Slow Food chapter at Lost Lakes Wines, about 15 minutes from Stonebarn. Guests from all around Western Australia attend: some city folk from Perth, some from Pemberton and others from nearby farming towns. Everyone shares a common interest in and passion for the bounty of the region and wants to learn more about its culinary culture through the Slow Food movement.
Sophie Zokolar, a chef and food writer based in Pemberton, hosts the lunch, which showcases produce from the Southern Forests: free-range brined chickens from Mount Barker; a beautiful white bean soup made with local veggies, beans and olive oil; and an Italian-style buckwheat cake with persimmons poached in karri blossom honey, served with Bannister Downs double cream, a sort of fattened-up crème fraîche.
Zokolar, who also runs Pemberton Breakaway Cottages, a set of chalets in town, hopes that creating a community around Slow Food will help preserve the culinary heritage of the region, inspire new dining establishments and promote Pemberton as a connoisseur's destination. She will soon start cooking classes and offer tours with producers who teach guests how to work with local produce and other foods.
Agriculture is an integral part of the history of this region, which is also known for timber milling. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, three timber mills were established, and Pemberton grew around them.
The Bunnings mill was a source of controversy in the town of Northcliffe, about 30 minutes south of Pemberton, where environmentalists, a decade ago, protested the cultivation of the forest. Ultimately, because of policy changes and other factors,the Bunnings mill closed, and the people of Northcliffe established a sculpture walk within the forest.
I wander around the Understory, an art trail that opened in 2006, and am enchanted. The air is crisp and clean from the rain, and my mood changes with the sculptures, some somber, others empowering, Each artist depicts his or her idea of nature and history without imposing on the landscape.
Trees and wine
Back in Pemberton, tourists can climb some of the huge karri trees, which were once used as lookouts for firefighters. I make it halfway up the 196-foot-high Gloucester Tree, but excuse my lackluster performance by noting that signs warn against climbing if there's been rain, which there has been.
Still, I reward myself with a glass of red wine. Some of the emerging wineries in Pemberton are solid. A few are creating a buzz, including Picardy Wines. Dan Pannell, whose family also owns Moss Wood Wines in the more developed Margaret River region to the west, is producing Bordeaux blends that are velvety, sophisticated and refined.
With a final tipple, I am sated -- or as much as any aspiring gastronome can be.
Although I have come to the Southern Forests in search of black gold, I've ended up with something better: a diamond in the rough. It is still growing into its full potential, one lump of truffle at a time.