Fantastic four

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Their job is to run around trees on the farm and indicate where truffles may be growing underground.

Teresa Yong-Leong meets four awesome canines

MEET the awesome foursome —  Digit, a German short-haired pointer, Bindi, a kelpi and the engaging Ramsay and Nugget, labradors.

They are the prized residents at Oak Valley Truffles (OVT) farm in Manjimup, a four-hour drive from Perth, the capital of Western Australia. These four canines are the key sniffers for black gold (truffles), a gourmet mushroom that can fetch up to AS$2,000/kg (RM6,600).

Three times a week during truffle season (June to August), they go around the farm, sniffing at trees where the truffles grow underground, guided by their pretty handlers, Leah Bradbury and Alyssa Cowgill. In Europe, truffle season is from late December to March.

“These dogs are very good at their job. They are good with their noses and are motivated to work,” says truffle manager Fabio Dei Tos proudly.

He is especially proud of Bindi’s six-month-old niece, Biddi, which is being groomed to be a full-fledged truffle dog.


The property is vast and the terrain can be taxing, so the dogs have to be very fit, well-fed and well-rested in order to do their job properly.

PINK MARKS THE SPOT

They run around the trees, row by row, in the early morning. Once they mark where the precious truffles are growing, the row is marked with a pink ribbon for farm hands to delicately dig them out without damaging them.

The truffles are graded according to size and shape. Chefs shave them sparingly and add to recipes. The regular roundish shapes make handling easy.

Handling the dogs is no easy task and Leah and Alyssa have to pull hard on the leashes to control them. As I try getting just two of them together for pictures, Leah tells me: “It is not going to happen any time!”

Though a dog lover, I also find them way too willful and uncontrollable in their affection. I am practically pushed over  when I pet them.

Fabio obligingly demonstrates how farm hands locate the truffles after the dogs have marked the spot. He explains that sometimes the digger has to dig around the spot to find it. Occasionally, the dogs can be mistaken too.

In Europe, pigs were once used to locate truffles. Unfortunately, the pigs enjoyed eating these mushrooms too much.

Dogs, on the other hand, have more sensitive noses that are perfect for the job, which they see as a sort of game as they are rewarded with their favourite toys once they have finished their work for the day.  

ACQUIRED TASTE

At the farm on an overnight stay, I get to taste the truffles. It’s a lovely dinner of black truffle ravioli and truffle salami that Fabio has made specially. He says he only makes a limited batch of truffle salami a year and he chooses only the best meat for the delicious sausage.

There have been plenty of requests for the salami but Fabio only makes them for family members only. They go well with wine.

Truffle as often described as ambrosia but I do believe that it is a love-it or not-so-keen-on-it kind of delicacy. My introduction to the mushroom was at the recent Mundaring Truffle Festival 2012 and I did not exactly fall in love with it.

I liked it well enough. It has an unmistakably earthy and woody smell and its texture is, well, interesting. I practically had it coming out of my ears at the two-day fest where all the dishes had truffles in them.

Truffle is said to go best with bland and alkaline food such as rice, spaghetti and other carbohydrates as the subtle aroma can be fully appreciated and not overpowered. It complements fish and meats well.

Surprisingly, I find truffle ice cream one the best items while chips and popcorn sprinkled with truffle is yummy too.

PRECIOUS PRODUCE

OVT farm has 37,000 trees and the trufferie produced its first harvest just four years after the initial plantings — two years ahead of schedule.

Fabio explains there is no standard for grading the precious fungus but when he was in France, truffle expert Pierre-Jean Pebeyre of Pebeyre Truffles showed him that seeing and feeling the product overrode the smell criterion, although aroma was important too.

Once the precious mushroom is harvested, it is washed, graded and vacuumed packed. It can be air-freighted to overseas markets. Some truffles are kept moist in soil and refrigerated until orders are received. They are best used fresh or kept for a week at most as its volatile oils do vaporise.

OVT managing director Wally Edwards tells me that the farm was established in 2006 with an initial planting of 6,000 oak and hazelnut trees with roots inoculated with the Perigord truffle spore. The trees are planted in 20m by 50m blocks for optimum harvesting of both truffles and the hazelnut.

“We plant hazelnut trees so that eventually when the trees mature, we will have both nuts and truffles,” he says.

MUNDARING TRUFFLE FESTIVAL

The increasingly popular annual Mundaring Truffle Festival was started six years ago to demystify the fabled delicacy for the Australian public.

This year’s festival from July 28-29 was organised by the Shire of Mundaring in the Perth Hills and OVT was involved as a sponsor.

MTF has been named one of the top five truffle festivals in the world. The rest are Alba (Italy), Sarlat (France), Napa (California) and Sarrion (Spain).  

The chefs at the event this year included award-winning chefs and cookbook authors such as Alain Fabregues, Neil Perry, Gillaume Brahmini, Emmanuel Mollois, Anna Gare, Nick Zoccali and Margaret Johnson.

Highlights included a sold-out truffle masterclass by Alain of Loose Box fame, Bennelong’s Guillaume and Bistro des Artistes’ Emmanuel. Long table lunches were a roaring success too.

Chair of the organising committee, Megan Griffiths, was pleasantly surprised by the 20,000-strong turnout with some coming from as far as Singapore. When the idea of a truffle festival was mooted by Alain, a Frenchman from Bordeaux but who now calls Australia home, only a few thousand turned up.

Alain thought Perth the ideal place for a truffle festival as it shared the same environs as his home country — with many villages in a hilly environment, that grew truffles.

Indeed, Western Australia will eventually be the world’s largest producer of truffles, offering some 10,000 tonnes of the prized mushroom as well as making it available all-year-round in concert with the truffle output from Europe and China.

 

The Oak Valley truffles farm team: (From left) Leah, Eric, Shona, Alyssa and Fabio with their charges, Bindi, Ramsay and Nugget

Fabio Dei Tos slicing his delicious truffle salami at the Oak Valley Truffles farm house for dinner

 

Fabio Dei Tos carefully digging out the truffles


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