28/06/2005 - 22:00

Manjimup truffles no mere trifle

28/06/2005 - 22:00

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What’s black, rather pungent, $3,000 a kilo and great with omelettes or risotto? Truffles, of course.

Manjimup truffles no mere trifle

What’s black, rather pungent, $3,000 a kilo and great with omelettes or risotto?

Truffles, of course.

And if it’s truffles you want the place to go is Manjimup, where this year the Manjimup Wine and Truffle Company will harvest between 50 and 100 kilograms of black truffles.

The state’s most unique agri-business has been in the headlines with the discovery of a 1kg truffle, the biggest ever found outside France.

“It’s a freak of nature,” says Dr Nick Malajczuk, the truffle consultant who unearthed the massive fungus last week.

The former CSIRO forestry scientist is credited as directly responsible for Manjimup’s early truffle success.

Celebrated chef and restaurateur Alain Fabregues says Dr Malajczuk is the “father of the Australian truffle industry” because of his revolutionary approach to the “noble product”.

And as technology is refined across the South West company’s 21 hectares filled with oak and hazelnut trees, there are suggestions that as much as a tonne of truffles could be produced.

The company has adopted a distinctly non-French method of cultivation since its inception eight years ago.

Manjimup Wine and Truffle Company managing director Wally Edwards says that traditional methods used in European truffle orchids are very much “a very hit and miss affair”.

“Practices overseas have always been unscientific. The research and development Nick has done and the techniques he uses could never happen in France – there is too much tradition,” Mr Edwards says.

Through the work of Dr Malajczuk, the South West producer is taking another ‘new world’ approach to something once thought of as quintessentially French. First it was wine, now it is truffles.

“The name of the game is getting the science right from day one,” Dr Malajczuk says of the business of unlocking the mysteries of truffles.

“We are at the cutting edge of some of the techniques, even though we tend to take a left of field approach.”

The company’s recent success is a true reward of patience for a group equally structured around two goals – producing super premium wine and truffles, and offering tax benefits to its 21 investors.

Those same investors funnelled about $5 million into the project without result until the first truffle was discovered in the winter of 2003. The next year they had 100, and this year they have reached this total in a matter of weeks.

Behind the attention-grabbing 1kg trophy truffle, Dr Malajczuk and his team of trained dogs are routinely unearthing a substantial amount of truffles ranging from 250 to 500 grams. Not bad considering markets interstate and overseas will happily pay $3 a gram.

Local chefs such as Mr Fabregues have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of this year’s crop. With such limited supply, restaurants supporting the company’s range of wine are often given first bidding rights to the truffles.

Manjimup’s truffles have identical DNA structures to the prized Perigord black truffles of France, and chefs and foodies are quick to appreciate the versatility of the product.

“This one ingredient has the capacity to change the perspective of Australian cuisine entirely,” says Mr Fabregues, who is a firm supporter of the local product and is planning a trip to France to speak of the virtues of Aussie truffles.

And it’s not just foodies who get excited about truffles.

“The most exiting part about it from a scientist’s point of view is the hunt,” Dr Malajczuk says.

“Everything is underground; it is sometimes frustrating in that it can be a random event.”

Therein lies the internal paradox of Manjimup’s truffle business. For while so much leading scientific research and development has gone into the careful orchestration of fruiting truffles, after that, it is as Mr Edwards says, “a bit of a guessing game”.

“The fact that we got one as big we did is very unusual,” Mr Edwards says. “Large truffles like that are nice in that they are iconic.”

But you get the feeling after talking to those concerned that when an event such as this occurs, the optimist in them begins to think that somewhere out there, in the truffle orchid, an even bigger subterranean monster could be quietly stirring.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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