West Aussie Delicacies taking the World by Storm – Truffle Hunting in WA’s South West
Surely you have heard the news by now… Lonely Planet have just announced their top 10 destinations in Asia Pacific and the winner is… Western Australia’s Margaret River and the South West!
So here is just a taste, pun intended, of what one of our favourite regions in the world has to offer…
Truffle Hunting in Manjimup, WA
It is wonderful to have the opportunity to travel far and wide on this amazing planet – something the team at YOLO Travel takes advantage of at every available opportunity. But in travelling to such exotic locales, it is sometimes possible to overlook the wonders that exist right here in this amazing state of ours.
Therefore we have committed to rectify that situation in recent years, and when a long weekend coincided with the start of the truffle season in Manjimup, it was the perfect excuse for a WA-based adventure.
Truffles – these rare delicacies are not much to look at (black, knobbly, and covered in the dirt they emerge from), but their aroma and flavour make them one of the most prized foods on the planet. Revered by chefs and gastronomes, truffles have been cultivated in France and Italy for hundreds of years.
However, the exclusivity of this European industry was shattered in 1993, when, after years of research and five long years of waiting for a crop, the first black truffle ever grown in the southern hemisphere was unearthed in New Zealand. And a whole new industry was born.
The first Australian-grown truffle was harvested in 1999, in Tasmania. But even before that success, a scientist in WA believed so strongly in the climatic conditions of Manjimup that he convinced a group of friends and entrepreneurs to establish a trufferie in 1997. 13,000 hazelnut trees, inoculated with black truffle spores, were planted in neat rows on a property at the outskirts of this small southwest town – a massive investment of time and money, and a gigantic gamble for all involved. After six long years of painstaking anticipation and escalating doubt, a truffle was finally found in 2003. It weighed 168 grams. The following year, 400 kilograms of truffles were harvested. Last year, it was more than 5000 kilograms.
Truffles from Manjimup are now exported all over the world, and are considered to be of extremely high quality. So much so that we have been served them in such esteemed restaurants as Per Se in New York, as well as Noma in Copenhagen.
More importantly, the truffle industry in Manjimup is reinvigorating the local economy, and bringing visitors from Perth, from all over Australia and from all over the world to this delightful but often overlooked corner of WA.
Manjimup, Pemberton and the Surrounds
Manjimup is located approximately 300km south of Perth, about a 3.5 hour drive via Bunbury and Bridgetown. Nearby are also the stunning karri forests of Pemberton – in our opinion one of the most beautiful and appealing regions in WA (though there are many contenders for the title, of course). Here, these picturesque old-growth trees soar majestically, with elegant dappled trunks and a thick green canopy, and are at their most stunning when cloaked in misty dawn light.
We decided to stay in Pemberton for this trip and there we choose Marri House, a beautiful three bedroom property built in 2011, with luxurious fittings including a fully equipped chef’s kitchen, bespoke furniture and a wonderful wood fire (in addition to reverse cycle airconditioning) – much appreciated as the region has the coldest winters in WA. With a host of thoughtful touches, including a complimentary fruit platter, a bottle of wine, and freshly collected eggs from the owner’s chickens, it is a perfect base from which to explore the region.
Pemberton itself is a picturesque town, with a functional but charming high street that meanders through the valley, numerous small restaurants and a helpful tourist centre. On either side, the town’s small grid of streets make inroads into the surrounding forest, but nature is never far away – tall trees line the roadways, the air is thick with the scent of eucalyptus, and in the evening there are kangaroos on the verges (oh and lets not forget the ever present, laughing kookaburras).
The vineyards of the region are also particularly scenic. While perhaps less famous than their Margaret River counterparts, as Lonely Planet attests, the vineyards of Pemberton are amongst the most beautiful in the country, with neat rows of vines traversing the rolling hills and valleys.
We discover the countryside of Pemberton and Manjimup by car and on foot over our weekend, traversing the winding backroads and hidden hollows and climbing the famous Gloucester Tree.
When to go…
Winter is a glorious time of year to visit Manjimup and its surrounds, the weather crisp but invigorating and it is this time of year when the truffles are ripe for unearthing.
Hunts take place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from early June to late August. With just one tour per day, and just 12 guests per tour, tours are often sold out well in advance, although at the time of writing, spots are still available for late July and August this year.
Tours commence at 9:15am at a large communal table in the company’s showroom, with an impressively informative slideshow presentation, explaining the history of the business and how the truffles are cultivated and harvested.
This is accompanied by coffee and a truffle-based morning tea, including truffle butter, truffle brie, a truffle and chocolate brownie, and freshly baked scones with truffle cream. Plus a glass of sparkling wine, to get the morning started.
Truffle specimens are also passed around for feeling and smelling, and then it is time for the hunt.
Our guide introduces us to the stars of the show at The Truffle and Wine Co – the super friendly, mitten-wearing labradors who are trained to sniff out the subterranean truffles and indicate their location to their less olfactorily-gifted human companions.
We are each allocated our small trowels for digging and reminded of the rules of the hunt – no digging without permission, don’t scratch the surface of your truffles and no, you don't get to keep the truffles you unearth.
We then begin a picturesque walk alongside the oak and hazelnut groves to where we will begin the difficult and arduous task of finding a truffle.
Or so we thought…
We have barely entered the first row of trees when our labrador stops with her paw outstretched. We are all cynical – there can’t possibly be a truffle right here, just a metre from the pathway. But our guide trusts our truffle dog, and encourages one of our fellow guests to gently and carefully scrape away the soil where the dog is pointing.
And there, just a few centimetres below the surface, is a perfect gnarled and knobbly specimen, about the size of a golf ball. It is extracted carefully, meticulously separating it from the soil, ensuring that the skin of the truffle is not scratched and the truffle is not broken.
We crowd around for appreciative inhalations of its earthy, pungent scent, before our guide puts it away for safekeeping – at over $2000 a kilogram, even this small specimen is worth more than $100! We wonder if we will be lucky enough to find any more.
But we do not wonder for long. Our truffle dog walks barely two metres before stopping again, and the process is repeated. And repeated. And repeated. Guests take it in turn to dig up the prizes – sometimes small, sometimes large, sometimes close to the surface and sometimes a little deeper, sometimes with multiple truffles around the roots of the same tree and sometimes with dozens of truffles in the same hole. One guest was lucky enough to discover a motherlode of truffles all clumped together, enough to fill his two cupped hands to overflowing (and enough to make us all gasp when told of their estimated value).
When all guests have had the opportunity to dig up a bounty of truffles, and having walked barely a hundred metres (definitely the least onerous “hunt” we have ever been on!), we return to the cellar door for tastings of the award-winning Truffle Hill wines.
We also took this opportunity, as did many of the guests, to continue on our truffle extravaganza by staying on for lunch at The Truffle Restaurant, where we can highly recommend sharing the Truffle Delights Platter. Also available are a range of truffle infused products, including oils, salts, mustards and honey, as well as truffles in a range of sizes (but unfortunately not the ones that you have found that day).
Truffle hunting in Manjimup is just another great thing to see and do in this amazing state of ours, and one we at YOLO Travel can highly recommend. Local tourism is just as important to our regions and its small business owners as is tourism from interstate and overseas visitors. And while we all live super-busy lives, it is great to get out of Perth for a weekend and experience some of our incredible countryside – and the opportunity to include a uniquely entertaining truffle hunt might be just the excuse for a winter weekend getaway in this corner of the world.