On a crisp morning Gavin Booth of Australian Truffle Traders introduces Molly, a rescue dog turned highly trained truffle hunter. During truffle season she is put to work on the Booth family’s Manjimup orchard. Planted 11 years ago it’s a mix of oak and hazel trees, the roots inoculated for the cultivation of the precious Tuber melanosporum, or black winter truffle. While the image of the truffle industry in other parts of the world can be one of secrecy, in Manjimup, in the south west of Western Australia, hunting for truffles is a seasonal attraction for chefs, keen cooks and the food curious.
Molly’s olfactory senses are around 120000 times more discerning than humans says Booth. ”So to put it in a gross way, if I was to get my nose and stretch out the surface area, it would cover about two square metres. If you were to get Molly’s and stretch it out it would cover about the size of a soccer pitch.”
As we move up through the orchard, a carpet of fallen leaves crunching underfoot Molly leads the way, sniffing at the ground. While you’d think it was for truffle, she is at times, says Booth, “perving”; picking up the scent of a male fox. Distractions aside she’s back to the hunt and soon finds the first of a decent morning’s haul. Booth asks her to show him, and then repeats the command. Homing in on the spot Booth kneels and clears back the leaves. Even before the gentle excavation begins the heady musk of truffle is already evident; only growing stronger as Booth starts to clear the dirt around it.
As Booth carefully digs a trowel underneath the partially uncovered truffle, he coos his approval to Molly, who while a working dog is with her counterparts Gidgee and Max, a part of the family. Mel Booth, Gavin’s wife and business partner spent years training Customs dogs to sniff out narcotics. Now it’s a much gentler pursuit for the dogs she trains.
“Sometimes they’re like icebergs, Booth says as he continues to tease out the prize. “They just keep going and going.” The biggest specimen pulled from the orchard we’re hunting on was around 900g; the average being about 85g. “I’m pretty chuffed with that,” says Booth genuinely pleased. Our first find is around 200g, of which Booth says, “there’s not a Michelin starred restaurant in the world that wouldn’t be happy seeing that coming through the door.”
Booth says that each chef and cook has their own idea of the perfect truffle. ”That’s pretty much my perfect example,” he says of what we’ve just dug up. “It’s a bit lumpy and bumpy. I don’t like them when they’re too perfect. I think when they’re perfect and round they sort of lose a bit of character.” Chefs have different ideas, some going by size, others smell, while others are just looking for the perfect (albeit expensive) garnish. “The perfect round ones [for garnish] they order by the millimetre not by weight” says Booth. Before long Molly is off again, nose down, Booth eagerly following behind.