Good nose for the job

Picture: Ian Munro

As top-flight chefs in North America put the finishing touches on their summer menus, many eagerly await their delivery of Perigord truffles from WA's Southern Forests region.

At La Toque in Napa Valley, California, chef Ken Frank is excited to embark on his restaurant's second summer season with fresh black winter truffles from The Truffle & Wine Company in Manjimup.

"Last year their perfume was extraordinary, every bit as good as the finest European truffles," he said. "We are excited to be able to pair fresh winter truffles with summer ingredients to create delicious combinations never before possible."

So confident is fellow Napa chef Thomas Keller in WA's product, that he's already using the preserved gourmet mushrooms in his pasta dishes at his iconic The French Laundry.

Meanwhile, not content simply to wait for his delivery, Chicago's Grace Restaurant chef Chris Duffy will join others from around Australia at Manjimup's Truffle Kerfuffle, from June 27-29, to see for himself how the fungal delicacy is grown in the west.

The demand from Europe, North America and Hong Kong has been growing at break-neck speed, and this year the Southern Forests' three leading trufferies will produce close to seven tonnes of the black gold during the upcoming three-month harvesting season.

Fetching more than $2200/kg, it's a lucrative export business for WA growers, who produce more than 80 per cent of Australia's truffles.

While the region's karri-loam soils and Mediterranean climate are credited with producing the world-class fungus, it's man's best friend that makes digging for truffles ultimately possible.

"Without them, there would be no industry," Truffle Dogs WA's Melanie Booth said. "The truffles live underground and we need the dogs to sniff them out. Once upon a time in Europe they used pigs but there were a lot of fingers missing because the harvesters had to fight the pigs who wanted to eat the truffles.

"The industry then turned to dogs because while they love the hunt, they don't see the truffles as food. Instead of wrestling a 100-200kg sow, you're dealing with a 20kg dog, who is usually eager to please."

Although she is WA's most experienced truffle dog handler, Ms Booth fell into the industry when a former Australian Customs colleague, who started his own truffle farm in Manjimup, reached out for help.

"There was no one in WA at the time capable of training the dogs," Ms Booth said. "I joined Customs in 2000 and by the end of 2004 I was working with the dog unit in Canberra - it was a narcotic unit and I'd had plenty of training in working with the dogs on scent association.

"I took some leave and joined a dig in 2007 with our white labrador Viva. She had been a prisons dog, so she was trained in scent association and accustomed to what was required."

Along with her husband Gavin Booth - now chief executive of the district's biggest trufferie, The Truffle & Wine Company - Viva and another trusty companion, black labrador Rani, the Booths have helped turn the local industry into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

"Viva and Rani have probably found more truffles between them than any other dogs in the country," Ms Booth said. "They've been the mainstay of our business. I've been taking them to 30 separate orchards for the past two years, and to a couple in the hills of Perth.

"They absolutely love it - they sulk if they can't hunt. They have a great nose and they are fantastic pets as well as wonderful truffle dogs."

Rani, whose father was one of the Queen's hunting dogs, holds the record between the two prolific hunters.

She sniffed out a truffle two years ago that weighed almost a kilo. Viva isn't far behind, with her best find weighing in at just under 800g.

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