Following his nose, Max Anderson discovers the fickle fungus prized in kitchens around the world.
Sunny is a dog worth three times her weight in gold. No, really. The kelpie weighs 25 kilograms, which at the present gold price is about $1.1 million. During last year's truffle season, she sniffed out 1.6 tonnes of Perigord truffles - a whopping pile of funky fungal nodules for which the world's gastronomes would pay more than $3 million.
Sunny works for the largest truffle producer in the southern hemisphere, the Wine and Truffle Company in Manjimup. The company also makes Truffle Hill wines but vintage is over, the vine leaves have turned yellow and the soft autumn air is laced with wood smoke.
Which means only one thing: fresh truffles.
"The season runs from June to August," dog trainer Frances Lee says, "and during that time we'll have all five dogs working. But today we'll be taking Sunny and Izzie, our beagle."
From June 1, visitors will be able to join daily truffle hunts, watching the dogs forage in the forests to find the flavoursome French Perigord black truffle. I'm with a small group being given a taste of the experience, although we're about six weeks too early and the truffles - fickle "children of the earth" that they are - resolutely refuse to be properly pungent until the season is upon them. So our experience is rather less on the nose than yours will be.
Behind the modern cellar door and cafe, I join Lee and her dogs on board a carefully-painted carriage. A tractor tows us deep into the 20-hectare estate which, although dedicated to noble rot and pricey fungus, is perfectly sublime. Trellised vines are golden contour lines describing the sensual form of green slopes and vales; great flocks of black cockatoos drift over giant Karri trees; swans raise small questions on a silvery dam. But it's in the beautifully named "truffiere" - an orchard of 13,000 hazelnut and oak trees - that all the senses become properly excited.
"Watch where you step," Lee says. Among the litter of hazelnuts (which are also rather good eaten straight off the ground) she points to a coal-sized lump of Tuber melanosporum poking through the loam. "This is a young truffle, which should be ripe in a couple of months - and at $3 a gram, worth maybe $300. It's rare for them to grow on the surface."
Sunny, who can sniff out her quarry from 50 metres, ignores it for deeper growths with a stronger, more fully developed aroma. She points her nose at a spot among the hazelnuts then sits, looking intently, not unlike an airport dog after finding drugs in luggage.
Lee kneels and digs a little way. "Here, smell the ground," she says, inviting us to press our faces to the shallow hole. "Really get your nose right in there. Can you smell it?"
I'm not sure I can but the rich, friable soil certainly smells of a happy childhood mostly misspent. It's a ridiculously simple pleasure.
Lee resumes the trowel work until a Perigord comes to light, the size of a small apple. It's dark, lumpy and coarse to the touch.
"Hold it up to your nose and rotate it slowly like a dial. You should inhale gently, like you're breathing. As you turn it, you can detect variations of aroma within the truffle ... "
And this time I get it. Snuffling truffles is, of course, at the heart of a love affair that dates back to the ancient Greeks. Plutarch thought they were fostered by lightning, Juvenal thought them forged by the rumble of thunder and I'm equally struck by the heady, slightly gamy aroma.
Apparently, however, this is a pale imitation of what's to come in six weeks. Lee explains the truffle I hold has been punctured by an insect and made rotten, though its aroma is similar to one in maturity. And it's no less beautiful, especially when sliced through with a knife to reveal a most delicate pattern, like a piece of black Wagyu beef marbled with creamy fat.
Sunny is quickly off to find the next truffle. Her excitement is almost matched by Dutchman Sake van Weeghel, the chief executive of the company and a chap for whom the season can't come quickly enough.
"There's nothing like walking into a forest at dawn and smelling the truffles in season," he says. "Of course you don't know where they are or how much you're going to get but as soon as I encountered it, I was captivated."
That first dawn was a long time coming for the Wine and Truffle Company - and indeed for Australia. In 1997, a consortium of investors got behind the musings of a CSIRO scientist who thought the limited success of truffles in Tasmania was due to the cold.
He believed the climate and soils of Manjimup, 300 kilometres south of Perth, would be ideal for the valuable Black Perigord, hitherto the preserve of Italians and Frenchmen who traditionally used pigs to locate the buried booty. The Aussie investors had the roots of 13,000 young hazelnuts and oaks inoculated with Tuber melanosporum, lavished them with love and water - and waited.
"The first truffle was a 168-gram specimen found in 2003," van Weeghel says. "We had our first harvest in 2004, when we got 400 kilograms. The year after that we got 600 kilograms."
The volume has been growing every year since: "Last year we harvested 1.7 tonnes; this year we're expecting a minimum of 2.5 tonnes." Which, if you do the sums, is a lot of return.
There are more than 150 truffle growers in Western Australia but only six operations are of a significant size, able to cope with the particular challenges of production and export.
The trouble is, from the moment a truffle is pulled from the host plant, the clock is ticking: the valuable delicacy is at its best for only seven to 10 days.
Van Weeghel says they have standing orders from customers in 14 countries, including Japan, Britain and the US. "They want a certain amount of truffles - and soon as we have them out of the ground we clean them, vacuum-seal them and freight them to Perth airport."
After the truffle hunt, I'm back at the tasting room and restaurant. Here, the aroma I'd encountered in the forest is thick in the air, generated by the likes of truffle salt, truffle oil, truffle mustard and a busy kitchen working with product frozen from last season's harvest. It's hard to believe that in six weeks' time the fragrance will be feistier, warmer, earthier.
At an al fresco table beneath a huge plane tree I try pan-seared truffle-infused scallops, aged tender beef fillet roasted with truffle, and hazelnut gateau with truffle ice-cream. Even out of season, it's a sensational spread, washed down with fine estate wines - including an especially good riesling - a cheerful truffle-ganza that not only inspires the palate but infuses itself into conversation and celebration.
But are the Manjimup Perigord actually any good? Pretty damned good, according to Ralf Bos, the German television gourmand known as "the truffle pope".
"Fifteen months ago I received the first delivery of Australian winter truffles from the Wine and Truffle Company," he wrote in January. "It was immediately clear to me I was holding something very special." Of course, it's also available when the northern hemisphere truffle is sound asleep in the ground.
As for the multimillion-dollar dog, Sunny is rewarded with some liver treats before wagging her way back to her favourite couch.
I thank Lee for her time and ask about the true worth of her working dogs. She laughs.
"Most of our dogs are rescue dogs," she says. "Sunny was a discarded dog.
"We paid $10 for her."
Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.
Qantas has one-way fares from about $200 including tax, from Sydney to Perth (5hr) and Melbourne (4hr). Jetstar and Virgin Australia also fly this route and Tiger Airways flies non-stop from Melbourne only. Fares with the low-cost carriers start at $100 from Melbourne and $156 from Sydney.
Truffle Hunt Tours start on June 1 and run until August 14. They cost $95 a person and include a wine and truffle-tasting experience plus chef Iain Menzies doing a brief cooking demonstration. Bookings are essential with the Wine and Truffle Company, phone (08) 9777 2474, see wineandtruffle.com.au.