Mining for black gold
Picture: Iain Gillespie

It's known as black gold and retails for about $2000/kg, making it one of the most expensive foods in the world. Traditionally sniffed out for centuries by pigs in the forests of France and Italy, it's now left to man's best friend to unearth the spot where this fungal delicacy grows.

Chefs are mad for it, and for the past few years third-generation Manjimup farmer Al Blakers has supplied truffles to restaurants from Paris, to New York and Sydney.

Last August, when he found himself dining with 18 Michelin-star and three-hat chefs at the Hong Kong Yacht Club, Mr Blakers knew the rest of the world was sitting up and taking notice too.

The sought-after Perigord truffle he grows from 3000 hazelnut and oak trees on 42ha of rich Manjimup soil was already a hit with Australia's top chefs - including Matt Moran and Neil Perry - but with their wider acceptance in the lucrative Asian market, Mr Blakers knew the million-dollar gamble he took in 1997 had paid off.

And with the product improving with every harvest, Mr Blakers predicts the region will outstrip France's production in less than 15 years.

"The whole world is chasing truffles from Manjimup," Mr Blakers said. "Our French distributor (Plantin) tells us they are as good if not better than those produced in France. We're in demand. In culinary terms, we are the rock stars to rock stars."

The road to success was neither quick nor easy for Mr Blakers and his family, whose business growing Tasmanian blue gums led to their calculated punt Manjimup's loam over clay soils would eventually deliver high-quality truffles for export.

During an experiment on the Blakers' Five Acre Nursery in the mid-90s Mr Blakers and a CSIRO research team attempted to transfer local mycorrhizal fungi on to the roots of the Tasmanian blue gum to improve growth rates, and it was then he had an epiphany.

"At the time there were pinot grapes being harvested in the area and sold to Moet & Chandon," he said. "That's when I put two and two together and thought that inoculating the trees with truffle spores would work."

Mr Blakers planted 1600 hazelnut and oak trees inoculated with spores imported from France and waited - it takes up to seven years for the first truffle to mature.

And what a difference a decade makes, with Manjimup Truffles now producing well over a tonne of black gold every year. Along with two other major producers in the Manjimup area, the truffle's trajectory is moving higher and faster than ever.

This year, the region will produce close to five tonnes or 85 per cent of Australia's truffles.

"It won't be long until Manjimup is the truffle capital of Australia," he said.

The West Australian

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