Thursday, July 10, 2008

Black Gold

A few years back a bunch of pretty savvy investors and a scientist with a passion for funghi set up a Truffle farm in Manjimup in the South West of Australia. Just in case it didn't work, they also planted grapes and hazelnut trees. Lucky for them, all three enterprises seem to be doing awfully well.

The beauty of Aussie truffles is they mature in winter, or European summer, when you can't get a fresh truffle for love or money in the Northern Hemisphere. Both the Tasmanians and the Kiwis have tried it before, but these West Australians seem to be making the most successful bid at cornering the market. With a plan to double their yield yearly, they're on their way to market domination and therefore control of the price. So don't expect truffle prices to be dropping any time soon.

Just in case you're not aware, truffles go for the bargain basement price of $3000 a kilo. Of course there are grades of truffle so some go for a lot more. No doubt postage and handling is included in the price.
So what are truffles? Well they are the fruiting body of a fungus (big scientific name I can't remember) which grows along the roots of trees providing a symbiotic relationship with its host so that the tree gets more nutrients and grows faster and better and stronger. When they ripen they smell like A: male pig pheromones and B: adult male armpits. This attracts them to female pigs who eat them then spread the spores around. So if you're a strapping young male having had a hard sweaty day at work, watch out for randy female pigs trying to eat your armpits!!

In the old days, truffle hunters used pigs to sniff them out, but arguing with a 2 ton randy sow over a cricketball sized piece of dung left a few of them somewhat fingerless. Now they use dogs, trained by former or current members of our illustrious drug detection taskforce - I'm assuming this job pays slightly better than Australian Customs. It's seasonal however, so next time a nice lady with a beagle comes by your luggage at the carousel, spare a moment of thought for her other life as a truffle hunter.
On Sunday, we travelled the one and a half hours down to Manjimup to join a truffle hunt and enjoy a three course gourmet meal, with truffles of course. And wine tasting, and buying truffle products though not any of the fresh stuff, I'm not that extravagant! Scrambled eggs with shaved truffle will now ruin me indefinitely for this simple comfort food. Main course was a beef and truffle pie, perfect pastry with a side of truffled potato mash to die for. Then hazelnut and chocolate slice with truffle ice cream. It was glorious, though I am yet to learn the fine art of photographing my meal before tucking in - I'll get there one day Bruce!

I rolled out the door, pulling up my trousers whose button had mysteriously popped on arrival at the truffle farm 4 hours previously! A bit of standing around to let the food settle then the drive back to Australind. We stopped in Donnybrook to visit the biggest kids' playground in the southern hemisphere, built with a donation from a local farmer and free for all kids of all ages to enjoy.
The soup for tea was nice, but it would have been just that bit tastier with a touch of truffle in it!!

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