Australian Traveller discovers there’s much more to WA’s southwest than just surf and wine. Such as earthy breads, stinky cheeses and those mysterious, elusive truffles . . .
Everyone asks the same question when I tell them we’re going on a truffle hunt: “Will you be able to keep what you find?”
I reply that I don’t think it’s that sort of a hunt. Dogs will be doing the actual searching, and I’m sure truffles are far too valuable for tourists like us to simply scavenge. To be honest I’m not sure I’d know what to do with one – a whole one – if I ever found myself in possession of it. While I’d never say no to a truffle of the chocolate persuasion, these fellows are the real deal: roundish, knobbly, pockmarked and liberally covered in soil, not with a genteel dusting of sifted cocoa ready for afternoon tea. No beauties these, to be sure, yet their flavour and scent have evoked crimes of passion and intrigue. At the very least, seduction. Mud cooked by lightning, Plutarch called them.
Point is, we may not even find any.
So, with these thoughts in mind, I found myself recently trailing a cream Labrador, Errol, through a mini forest – more accurately a trufferie – of young hazelnut and oak trees near Manjimup, a former mill town hidden in tall tree country right in the heart of WA’s southwest corner.
Around a decade ago, after careful assessment of the climate and soil, visionary scientist Nick Malajczuk planted 13,000 trees here. He inoculated their roots with black Perigord truffle spores – and waited. And waited. Truffle raising is like that. A lot of faith and patience. The first truffle, weighing 168g, was found in 2003. In 2006 the haul for the season was 125kg, in 2007 it topped 400kg, and many people are getting very excited about this new industry.
Finally Errol stops. He scratches the ground excitedly, then steps aside. This is the cue for his handler, Damon Boorman, to join in, digging with his fingers to clear out a little soil. “It has to smell right,” he assures us, sniffing his prize. We nose his palmful of moist black earth and it smells pretty much as we’d expect it to, but there is a certain pungency, which Damon pronounces as good. The truffle is ripe, so he ever so gently ferrets it out and passes it to his partner, Sue, who places it in a canvas bag marked with the exact location. This information will prove crucial to the still-evolving science of truffle growing.
After an hour, Sue’s bag is bulging, Errol’s expertise has been rewarded many times with meaty-bites, and we’re ready to see what lies under the muddy coating of our finds.
Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen
In the main building, a cellar door for the Wine & Truffle Company’s wines and olive oils, as well as a brand-new cafe, Boorman gently scrubs and weighs the truffles. One monster is 600g, worth around $1800 (reason enough as to why we won’t be taking any home). Some will go to upmarket Australian restaurants, others to Hong Kong, the US, Japan, Singapore, and, yes, France. If this sounds like a classic coals-to-Newcastle deal, there’s a twist: southern hemisphere truffles ripen during the north’s off-season. The French are enchanté to have access to high quality truffles during their summer.
Over lunch we finally taste marbled black slivers from one of the truffles “we” found (to be fair, Errol did most of the work), accompanied by a glass of Wine & Truffle Company’s fine sauvignon blanc. They taste slightly nutty, as if the hazelnut trees have lent a little more than just nourishment. There’s a crunchiness too, and that arresting earthy aroma, the essential mystique of truffles.
Living on bread and cheese
Just a short drive to the northwest we enter another dimension. Not far from Nannup, Bruce and Jean Wilde at Cambray Cottages and Sheep Dairy have had a cheese-change in the last couple of years. With their flock of sheep and newfound knowledge of the skill of cheese making they’re turning out a product that would sit well on any table.
More by good luck than anything else we arrive just as a transistor radio hung on a post is blaring out the signal for “the girls” to amble in from the paddock for milking. We watch as they make their way to the row of milking bales and snuffle in the feed bins as hoses are attached to their teats. Two to three minutes later, after yielding up to two litres of milk, they scramble down the out chute and back to their sheepy business.
Of course this is where the work begins and we sample the results in the tasting room. The range is quite amazing and includes a silky brie-style cheese, another called Camembray, a traditional Greek-style fetta and a Spanish-leaning St John’s Brook manchego-style cheese. My favourite is Friesette, meltingly creamy with a thin rind, perfect with crackers.
Next day at the coast near Dunsborough, another surprise. We’ve heard about Yallingup Woodfired Bread and make our way, following a trail of near invisible signs. We know we’ve hit the jackpot when we open the car door and are enveloped by the scent of freshly baked bread.
Inside, owner Gotthard Bauer is winding down from a busy day’s work. Rows of long freshly baked loaves – the last of the day’s 300 to 400 – cool on tables as his assistants busily post more puffy dough on long wooden peels into the ovens.
Bauer comes from a family of millers in Germany and so, once he settled in to this WA corner in 2000, it was a natural progression to look about for somewhere to make simple, wholesome, hand-formed breads – which are now sold through many markets and outlets in Perth and the region. Even so (proof of his success) as we talk to him, locals in the know arrive in the dark in a constant stream to buy bread for their dinners.
Mention Margaret River and the southwest of WA, anywhere, and people nod and murmur ah, yes, the wines . . . Soon they’ll be adding dreamily: and the cheese and that bread . . . and those truffles.
DETAILS // Truffles, Cheese & Bread
The Wine & Truffle Co // Seven Day Rd, 7km from Manjimup. Cellar door and cafe Wed-Sun and public holidays, 10am-4pm. One hour truffle hunts on Saturdays, 12.15pm (June-August), $55 pp; with wine tasting and lunch, $99. Bookings essential.
Phone // (08) 9777 2474
Website // www.wineandtruffle.com.au
Cambray Cottages and Sheep Dairy // RMB 470, Vasse Hwy, Nannup.
Phone // (08) 9756 2037
Website // www.cambraycottages.com
Yallingup Woodfired Bread // Roseneath Farm, Cnr Biddles & McLachlan Rd, Yallingup. Thurs-Sun, 10am-5pm.
Phone // (08) 9756 6306
TOP FIVE LODGINGS
For your accommodation pleasure, here’s AT’s pick of the places to rest your weary head after all that truffle hunting, surfing and wine and cheese tasting.
1. Stay at home
Well, someone else’s home, at Eagle Bay right on the tip of Cape Dunsborough. The fully air-conditioned Jahangir can comfortably accommodate up to ten guests in five double bedrooms, all with ensuites. Perhaps the most luxurious private property in the area, it’s highly prized so bookings well in advance are crucial. Also at Eagle Bay is resort-style Otranto. Search the Eagle Bay properties at www.privateprop.com for more.
2. Sun arise
About as far west as it gets, these 150 luxurious villa-style apartments have a unique view for WA. From the resort complex you can watch the sun and moon rise (rather than set) over the water. Quay West Bunker Bay, Bunker Bay Rd (off Cape Naturaliste Road), Bunker Bay. From $175 per night, studio villa. 1800 010 449, www.mirvachotels.com.au
3. Chandeliers in the bush
These three luxury bushland bungalows reflect the ethos of a chandelier: glamorous, luxurious and beautiful. To underline the theme, all retreats feature a hand-selected imported chandelier in the master bedroom. Chandeliers on Abbey, Abbeys Farm Rd, Yallingup. From $350 per night. (08) 9755 1100, www.chandeliersonabbey.com.au
4. Vine accommodation
If you want to feel really at home in wine country, why not stay in a vineyard? This family-owned winery has cosy suites and a restaurant. Sienna Estate, Cnr Caves & Canal Rock Rds, Yallingup. From $139 per night. (08) 9755 2028, www.siennaestate.com.au
5. Coming Soon
Following the opening of many properties in Southeast Asia, Karma Margaret River will launch its first luxury Australian resort in 2009. Guests will be able to fly to a private landing strip adjoining the resort, which also includes the Karma Vineyard. Details as the project progresses: www.karmamargaretriver.com
TOP FIVE DINING
One of the greatest joys of travelling in WA wine country is that the food has developed to match. You’re never far from a great meal to enjoy along with a fine wine.
1. For relaxed al fresco dining go to Olio Bello, home to some of the region’s best olive oils. Simple steaming plates of fresh pasta dressed with award winning olive oil – who can complain about that? Olio Bello, Lot 1 Armstrong Rd, Cowaramup. (08) 9755 9771, www.oliobello.com
2. You can smell this place even before you catch sight of contented coffee-lovers at tables on the grass outside. Yallingup Coffee is actually in Dunsborough, but who cares? You’ll find it used at many local cafes, but here you can enjoy a cup backed by the fragrance of the coffee roasting in action. Yallingup Coffee, 233 Naturaliste Terrace, Dunsborough. 08 9755 3025
3. For one of the most stunning locations (and excellent food) go to this open and airy cafe right on the beach. That leisurely breakfast might just segue into lunch. And why not! Bunkers Beach Cafe, Farm Break Lane, Bunker Bay, Cape Naturaliste. (08) 9756 8284, www.bunkersbeachcafe.com.au
4. Two for the price of one with a chocolate centre (Margaret River Chocolate Company) sharing owners and vicinity with one of the region’s best places to wine and dine. Great ambience and fresh from the backyard-garden veggies. Dining in? Still an excuse to drop by to stock up for your gourmet feast or barbecue. Margaret River Providore, 448 Harmans South Rd, Willyabrup. (08) 9755 6355, www.providore.com.au
5. Highlighting the unusual direction it faces, Quay West Bunker Bay’s glass-fronted restaurant is appropriately called Other Side of the Moon. It’s stunning in summer, cosy in winter, with food to match the panorama. And that says plenty. Other Side of the Moon, Bunker Bay Rd (off Cape Naturaliste Rd), Bunker Bay. (08) 9756 9159, www.mirvachotels.com.au
One for the kids
Big kids like this place too. Simmos Icecreamery is fun and the range of ice creams will blow your mind. Better still, they use milk from the contented cows you see everywhere in this former dairying-only region. RSM 105 Commonage Rd, Dunsborough. (08) 9755 3745, http://www.simmos.com.au/
This is, after all, the country, so learn about the land that sustained people long before white settlement. Bushtucker, River & Winery Tours showcase the best of all worlds blending bush food with beer, chocolates, cheese and wines. (08) 9757 9084, 0419 911 971, www.bushtuckertours.com
Apart from the Margaret River Providore, other places to pack a picnic or collect the makings of a meal at your self-catering accommodation include Margaret River Venison (08 9755 5028, www.mrvenison.com) for a range of cold cuts or meats for barbecuing, or The Larder (www.larder.biz) in Margaret River which is absolutely packed with gourmet items. Get cheeses-to-go too from Margaret River Dairy Company (www.margaretriverdairy.com.au).
Tours of the area
Many companies offer wine and gourmet tours in the area, and are listed on www.margaretriver.com. Down South Luxury Limousines’ wine and brewery tours are popular, and their aptly named Indulgence Tours give passengers a taste of everything. 0400 969 541, www.downsouthlimos.com