Trentham truffle farm serves up a delicious delicacy: photos, video

Hide and seek: Summer the Field Spaniel and owner Georgie Patterson go on the hunt for truffles in Trentham. Video: Leigh Sharp

Sniffing the damp ground hoping to catch a scent of a very special find is all in a day’s work for Summer, the Trentham truffle dog.

For 12 weeks a year, Summer and her ‘colleagues’ take a daily walk through rows of more than 1200 trees in the truffiere (truffle grounds) to sniff out the expensive edible fungi that chefs love to use as a decadent addition to their dishes.

In recent years, the historic township has become known as truffle-growing territory. It seems its limestone country of high pH and crisp, cool winters offers ideal growing conditions for what is essentially the fruit of an underground fungus or mushroom.

But not just any fungus; a truffle is an edible subterranean food which grows in a symbiotic relationship with the shallow roots of oak or hazel trees. Georgie Patterson, from Aussie Truffle Dogs, and Summer’s boss, has planted oak and hazelnut trees to encourage four varieties of truffles on her property - Périgord black truffle (tuber melanosporum), burgundy or summer truffle (tuber aestivum), small Italian white truffle (tuber borchii) and the highly aromatic Italian large white truffle (tuber magnatum pico), which happens to be the most expensive truffle in the world at $6000 per kilogram.

“It takes a lot of work to ensure the pH is right for growth and harvesting,” says Georgie, as lime was added to the soil over time to get the right acidity. “These trees have been in for eight years and we are only now harvesting these black truffles.”

Since they were first discovered in Périgord in France centuries ago, black truffles have been highly sought after by chefs and food lovers to shave over pasta, into soups and accompany other culinary delights. The edible portion is harvested in winter following maturity, while the summer truffle is usually harvested from December to March.

A long-time resident of Trentham and breeder of spaniels, Georgie says she and her family wanted to do more with the dogs and thought creating a truffle farm could be the ideal venture.

“A family member said to me it would be a novel idea if these dogs paid some of their bills,” she laughs. “So I thought truffle harvesting  would be something they would be good at .

“Any dog can find truffles it’s not that hard, but as it’s only a 12-week season, so for the other 40 weeks of the year you need to have a dog that fits into your lifestyle.”

Georgie has showed her dogs across Australia and the spaniels, she says, love fossicking through the truffiere as “they love to be worked”.

“They are happy working dogs - you treat them well and they love snuffling for the scent. It’s a real earthy perfume and it’s much quicker and easier if you use a dog and give them a little reward for doing so.”

For several years the purebred working dogs have filled the harvesting needs of the truffle industry in Victoria and interstate. While any dog can be trained to sniff out truffles, the Welsh Springer Spaniel and Field Spaniel were ideal for the breeding and training program, Georgie says, as they are “level headed, responsive and willing to work and successful in scent discrimination and tracking”.

She says training a dog to search for truffles takes time and patience, but the rewards are highly beneficial for both pet and owner. Patience is particularly required during harvesting.

“Scent work is the hardest discipline a working dog can do and you have to fight the elements,” she says. “It’s not easy to hunt for truffles when there are lots of people walking around the truffiere or it’s windy.

“(But) you have a happy dog and while some people say black truffles are expensive to buy at $2000 per kilo, I prefer to say it is a great find for $2 per gram.

“Once Summer’s harness is slipped on she knows it is time to go to work,” Georgie says of the Field Spaniel. It’s then only a two-minute walk from the kennels at the rear of the Patterson's home to the paddock next door that houses the buried treasure.

Summer is raring to get to work. As she makes her way along the trees, her nose is to the ground, her tail curled upright and slowly wagging as she sniffs around the base of each plant. A quick scratch with her paw on the ground signals to Georgie she has found a truffle.

“You sometimes have to be quick to catch it, as it can be a very quick scratch in the earth,” Georgie says. “But if you look for a brûlé (French for burnt), where there’s natural dieback around the tree it’s a good indication that truffle is growing as it kills off anything competing with it. But when you have hundreds of trees you are not going to do it yourself, a dog is quicker and easier.”

Following a treat and a loving "well done" pate from Georgie, Summer’s tail wags into overdrive as she patiently waits for her master to carefully push away soil to uncover the find.

“Oh, that’s a nice one,” says Georgie, taking in the truffle's earthy aroma . “At least 30 grams. It’s right for picking.”

In past weeks the Patterson’s truffles have made their way into the kitchens of some of the country’s top restaurants, and acclaimed chef Matt Moran recently stopped by to partake in a harvest.

Next year's harvest should be even better, Georgie says, as the oak trees were coming into their prime for truffle producing. 

“Oak outlasts us all, the theory is once your tree produces truffles it will do so for the life of the tree,” she says, which means there’s plenty of more work for Summer and friends. Here Summer, Summer, Summer...