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What’s all the kerfuffle?

This story appeared in Australian Geographic March-April 2017

Fonty’s Pool is glass the morning people roll in and park beside the potato paddock and walk to the truffle hunters breakfast. Some of the soul campers are still in their canvas palaces sleeping off the fire and feast of opening night. Chefs in skinny jeans and beanies stand on the lawn in the sunshine sipping coffee and breathing steam. Inside the marketplace tent, local stallholders setting up for the weekend agree Truffle Kerfuffle is a great hook for luring people to Manjimup.

The Noongar people were originally attracted to this place by an edible reed they call manjin. The soil of the state’s cool climate region also supports karri trees, which grow to over 80m and enticed Scottish-born timber cutter Thomas Muir to settle here in 1856. Since 2010, this winter truffle festival has drawn a crowd to the modest commercial centre of Western Australia’s Southern Forests.

But it’s a trap; black truffle is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce of produce grown around Manjimup and available at the festival. And the stories of this town – you barely need to dig – go far deeper than local fungus cultivation.

“We want people to come to this area, know where their food is from, how it’s handled.” Tony Fontanini’s grandfather and great-uncle emigrated from Tuscany just after 1900 and were followed by many others from Croatia, Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Russia. Fontanini’s fruit and nut farm and the adjoining Fonty’s Pool, where every Manji girl and boy learnt to swim, are local institutions.

By mid-morning Saturday, Lucinda Giblett of Stellar Violets is on stage in amplified conversation with West Australian chefs Aaron Carr of Vasse Felix and Paul Iskov of Fervor about pop-up restaurants, rural communities and foraging. Rodney Dunn of Tasmania’s Agrarian Kitchen cooks something truffle-infused in the chef’s cabin, wine tasting is underway in another shed and, on the lawn, the truffle dogs are impatient to demonstrate their sniffing prowess. Waterside, a musician performs an acoustic set near the open-air bar.

In a tent called stories of the southern forests, locals interview locals. Muir descendent, John Jenkins, talks about a time when winters were colder and wetter, the red dirt roads were more corrugated and everyone walked to school. “And a lot of us are still here on the same property.”

Next up, Nicole Giblett recounts how her grandfather and great-uncle sailed, as teenagers, from England to Fremantle in 1927 as part of a post-WWI group settlement scheme. They built their first house from corrugated iron scraps, hessian sacks and hand-hewn karri boards. Newton Orchards eventually created pink lady and annually harvest up to six million kilograms of apples. “If you’re interested in regional stories,” she says into the microphone, “this is about as good as it gets”.

In addition to the usual hunts at local trufferies, satellite events now extend the festival well beyond Fonty’s. Over the weekend, Foragers Field Kitchen in Pemberton hosts two seasonal truffle dinners. In the organic corner of Newton Orchards’ Valley View property, where the seeds of Stellar Violets arts and cultural centre have been sown, Fervor serves an 8-course degustation lunch in one of Lucinda Giblett’s train carriages.

The food, she explains to me, was: “primarily sourced locally with Paul bringing along some native ingredients. We featured local truffles, Bravo apples from the family orchards in one dessert, my cousin Cal caught the marron from the dam in the valley below my place, from our garden we dug spuds, cut cabbage that got charred on the open fire, and we also provided flowers and leaves”.

Suitable for growing everything from apples, apricots, asparagus and avocados to persimmons, potatoes, pumpkins and Pinot Noir grapes, the climate and soils of Manjimup are also ideal for native European truffle species Tuber melanosporum. The first oak and hazelnut roots were successfully inoculated here in the 1990s and the region now produces over 75% of Australia’s black truffles.

People show up, dressed up, to Fonty’s on Saturday evening for a $230/head truffle degustation with matched wines while Sunday’s festival entry is free for kids and concessions. Barossa-born Sophie Zalokar, of Foragers and Food of the Southern Forests, takes the stage with other chefs to discuss connecting the end user with the farmer and community rebuilding as part of Sunday morning’s program. Zalokar tells me she feels the festival now “seems to be getting the community aspect right”.

Festival President Jeremy Beissel, whose family owns Fonty’s and donates the space every year, says “it’s the local community that drives the festival. It only works on the budget it has because of all the volunteers”. Beissel, along with local truffle pioneer Al Blakers and truffle grower and dog handler Gavin Booth, hatched the idea in Blakers’ shed in 2009. Booth said they felt confident a high-end product like “truffle could increase productivity in the area”.

As the festival winds down on Sunday afternoon, I meet Carlo Pessotto promoting a gourmet offshoot of the family business in the marketplace alongside his three-year-old who’s nibbling a raw Dutch cream. He smiles at her and shrugs at me. “That’s what you get from a potato grower’s daughter. My grandfather used to feed me potatoes”.

Multi-generational family farms like the Pessotto’s are typical in Manjimup. Hardship is also commonplace with ongoing market fluctuations and industry crashes, but no matter what’s closed down “we’ve never sunk” the stayers agree.

The land provides “everything we’ve got,” says Tony Fontanini. And the truffle festival – a statement of the town’s intention and capacity to adapt, reinvent and survive – is “really good for Manjimup”.

Published in travel stories