SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS, AUSTRALIA
Pickles the truffle hound is having a bad day. The English springer spaniel scampers up and down rows of hazel and oak saplings, sniffing for the precious black treasure which lies hidden beneath the ground. The 550 trees were planted only five years ago and are barely waist-high.
But this year, in their first harvest, they have already produced 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds) of black Perigord truffles – the sort that are normally found in France.
"Find truffles, Pickles, find truffles," urges the dog's owner, Duncan Garvey, weaving between trees. The conditions are ideal for snuffling out truffles – there's no wind, the sun is shining, and the view extends across the valleys and timbered ridges of the Southern Highlands, a region two hours' drive from Sydney.
Not content with taking on the French at winemaking, Australia is now muscling in on the hallowed Gallic tradition of truffle growing. Just as Australian wine has won grudging acclaim from European vintners, the Aussies now aim to produce fragrant fungi every bit as good as those from the oak forests of France and Italy.
When Pickles stops beside a hazel bush, Mr. Garvey kneels down and digs away at the soil with a knife and his bare hands. But it's a false alarm – the dark earth reveals nothing more than stones and bits of old root. The search resumes.
Garvey, an agricultural economist, is the antipodean "Mr. Truffle." He first started trying to cultivate the famed Perigord truffle in Tasmania more than a decade ago. The first "black diamond," as the French call them, was plucked triumphantly from the ground in 1999.
Since then around 55 truffières, or truffle plantations, have been established in Tasmania and in the mainland states of New South Wales and Victoria.
Many of them sell their truffles to Garvey, who takes a cut and then markets them to restaurants in cities like Melbourne and Sydney for a hefty US$2,300 a kilo.
The success of the experiment has brought a touch of Provence and Perigord to upland regions of southeastern Australia, where conditions most resemble those of Europe's truffle-growing areas.
But there are peculiar challenges to cultivating truffles down under. "Wombats were climbing in over the fence," says plantation owner Bill deCorsie, referring to the lumbering, bear-like marsupials that excavate big burrows in the surrounding hillsides. "I had to adjust the height of the electrified wire to stop them getting in."
Scattered droppings are a sign that kangaroos are also regular visitors, although, so far, none of the marsupials has done much damage to the saplings.
Truffle cultivation is a tricky business. The fungi grow on tree roots a few inches beneath the ground. Trees are infected with the tuber melanosporum fungus, specially imported from France, then planted in chalky soil and left to mature for five years. "It's a gamble," Mr. deCorsie, a former builder, cheerfully admits. "You might get nothing at all at the end of it."
In Europe, pigs are sometimes used to sniff out the "black gold," but in Australia it is solely the work of well-trained dogs.
In a challenge to Gallic pride, a small consignment of truffles weighing 200 gramswas sent to a restaurant in Tokyo earlier this month – the first export of Australian truffles abroad. "The Japanese were blown away by the fact that they were eating fresh truffles in August," Garvey says.
The southern hemisphere's topsy-turvy climate means that Australia can produce truffles when there are none available in Europe. French and Italian truffles mature during the European winter.
"Our long-term aim is to export truffles around the world," says Garvey, keeping a watchful eye on his hound. "We've had a lot of interest from America, the UK – anywhere you find three-star Michelin restaurants."
French gourmands may turn up their noses at the idea of Australian truffles, but they have been well received at home.
"I've dug truffles in Provence, and these stand up to the best the French can produce," says Tim Pak Poy, a chef and restaurateur who has championed the fledgling industry. "We don't have the cultural baggage and culinary tradition that the French and Italians have, so we experiment with them a lot more."
Among recent innovations at his Sydney restaurant,The Wharf, are violet and truffle ice cream and truffle-layered brie.
The size of the Australian truffle harvest – around 80 kilograms is likely to be produced this year – is dwarfed by France's annual haul of 8-10 tons. But with almost limitless space, good soil, and technical know-how, the potential for growth in Australia is tremendous.
Garvey strides over to where Pickles is pawing at the base of a small oak tree. He gets down on all fours, trying to detect the truffles' distinctive odor. "Smell that," he says, nose pressed to the ground. "That's a magnificent perfume."
A few minutes' digging reveals a truffle the size of a potato, weighing about 300 grams. Pickles has redeemed herself and deCorsie and his wife, Pat, are delighted.
"When I first went to France 12 years ago, they chuckled and told me truffles would grow nowhere else," Garvey says, carefully extracting the earthy-smelling fungi from the ground. "They said the same thing about our vineyards."