Zazu the truffle dog has a border-crossing back story to rival Forrest Gump.
“He was initially from south-east Queensland, where he ended up at the RSPCA before somehow being transferred to another pound in Darwin,” says Wendy Burdis, co-owner of Zazu and Ganymede Truffle Farm in the Southern Tablelands.
“He was rescued by a former army dog-handler and trained to become a drug-sniffing kelpie in the Northern Territory. However, when the contract fell through for the unit Zazu was set to work for, he was retrained to find truffles and found his way to Goulburn.”
With truffle season officially kicking off in NSW last week, five-year-old Zazu is now set to earn his keep unearthing the luxe fungus twice a week through winter.
“We always joke that he has a pretty good job given that it only requires him to work around 20 days a year,” says Burdis.
Harvested from early June to September, truffles have an earthy flavour and intense forest-floor aroma. The black truffle (tuber melanosporum) is the most commonly harvested truffle in Australia, grown in the soil underneath a host tree it develops a symbiotic relationship with.
“Truffle production requires a massive amount of time and labour,” says Gavin Booth, owner of Australian Truffle Traders based in Manjimup, Western Australia.
“A truffle orchard doesn’t become commercially viable until at least 10 years after inoculation and can only be pruned by hand so heavy machinery doesn’t compact the soil.”
Truffles are traditionally priced higher than most other agricultural products because of the meticulous methods of growing, harvesting and cleaning required to produce the mushroom relative.
Training a dog to find ripe truffles in the ground is also a lengthy process. Although any breed is capable of becoming a trained truffle-sniffer, the dog must have a patient disposition and desire to hunt and dig.
“It’s incredible what Zazu can sniff out,” says Burdis. “When his truffle trainer Nathan Cooper delivered Zazu to us in 2018, the poor dog had been transported from Darwin’s heat straight into sub-zero temperatures and he was still finding truffles 25 centimetres below ground.”
Wayne Haslam is the owner of Blue Frog Truffles in Sutton near the ACT border. He says the truffle season for 2020 is looking plentiful for NSW and Canberra region farmers.
“With the drought last year, a lot of farmers were worried there wasn’t going to be a truffle season at all. But after a few months of good rainfall and frosts, the harvest is looking healthy. You need the frosty weather for truffles to mature.”
Depending on a season’s yield, Australia has become the third or fourth largest truffle-growing country in the world since the first domestic truffle orchards were established in the 1990s. Haslam says he expects truffle prices will remain similar to last year at $2 to $2.50 per gram at retail, depending on quality.
“Truffle prices have been holding their own pretty well over the years. There’s been increasing supply since I started harvesting in 2007, but there’s also been increasing demand.”
Burdis says a lot more home cooks than usual have been asking about truffles this season, perhaps to flex new skills in the kitchen.
“I was worried there would not be enough restaurants reopening and buying truffles coming out of the pandemic, but with the surge of home cooking over the past three months it looks like we’re going to be fine.
“Having said that, restaurants still seem very keen, too. I just took an order from a chef wanting three kilograms of truffles for Bastille Day.”