MANJIMUP THE UNBELOVED

Story By: Cassis Lumb  / Photography By: Greg Lewis

“Some people tell us that Manjimup is a dying town, but I for one won’t believe this, as towns fall and rise again.”
– Andrew Muir Jr (2006)

“The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord.”
– Alexander Dumas

A bitter wind is flowing freely through my thin cardigan, and I’m hoping to warm myself up with something hot. I’m in the coffee line at the Truffle Kerfuffle, a two day festival celebrating the prized black truffle, where I get chatting to a couple of women in the very slow line. They are tall, and blonde and are wearing the kind of country boots Kate Moss wears when she is out and about at Glastonbury. I ask them if they are locals, and one replies that her parents have a beef farm near Manjimup. From there, she enthusiastically assumes the role of Tourist Information Officer and waxes lyrical about the attractions of the region in general. I ask her what she loves about Manjimup itself and she screws up her face, shaking her head. Yet she’s here today, at this town event. So I ask her whether she thinks the truffles are changing Manjimup and she lights up again, “Oh yes! I used to complain that my parents bought property out here, and now I’m starting to feel really glad!”

The Manjimup that I knew when I was growing up and going to school here was conservative, rough and… well, bogan. Not a place I felt proud of – though others might have. Back then the highlight of the cultural calendar was the arrival of a band with a bad pun for a name, who played Angels and AC/DC covers in the town hall. The culinary highlight was hot chips and gravy from Southern Chicken, the local fast-food shop. It was a place relatively unknown beyond the region, and not particularly well regarded by those who did know it, despite being nestled right in the centre of the great forest region and being the largest town in the district. It certainly wasn’t on the tourist map. The South West region of WA has long been known for its spectacular coastline and magnificent forests, but the places people thought of were Margaret River, Pemberton, Bridgetown and Albany. Yet, returning to Manjimup in June of 2014, I found that this same town was playing host to leading Australian and international chefs, and that foodies were singing the praises of both the truffle and the town.

How did Manjimup, a once-dour Cinderella, long in decline, suddenly burst onto the international food map? How is this transformation changing the way the town is seen, by both outsiders and the local people? And what role is the truffle, prince of the fungi, playing in this rise – socially, economically and culturally? In a word, whatever happened to bogansville?

The town of Manjimup has had many false starts and promises. To the original nomadic inhabitants, the Nyungar-Murram people, the area was a land of plenty. But for early European settlers the isolation, dense bushland and difficult terrain made the region an inhospitable place. The town’s roads tell the success stories, Muir, Rose, Giblett, all early settlers immortalised in the streetscape, but for most the land was rife with challenges. Truer a forefather to the spirit of the town was a Mr. De Courcey Lefroy. In 1865, Lefroy, a property owner new to the region, cleared a large area of Karri forest with the aim of transforming the land into
a wheat farm. The red loamy soil on which the Karri forest grew promised spectacular yields, and so it was not unreasonable that Lefroy would anticipate his success by building a house and a mill powered by a water wheel. But what at first appeared to be rich, deep, fertile soil was, however, lacking vital nutrients and the wheat crop failed. Only two years later, in 1867, Lefroy left the land. Less than ten years after that, a fire raged though the neighbouring bushland, germinating and dispersing seed. The land, having been abandoned was left to return to its natural wilderness state. Today, visitors to the area can experience the beauty of Lefroy’s grand failure; as the forest that regenerated itself. It is named Founders Forest (misleadingly perhaps, in suggesting that the whole thing was intentional) and it is rightly a popular picnic area.

Manjimup’s main (successful) industry was always, and to some extent continues to be, timber, and the story of timber is integral to the story of Manjimup, its defining character, its glory and its shame. The Karri forests, existing only in one pocket of the South West of Australia, are among the most beautiful in the world. Karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor) are the second tallest tree species in the world, growing up to a spectacular 90 meters tall, on smooth, surprisingly slender trunks. These trees, like all Eucalyptus species, keep their leaves year round, but they still mark the passing of the seasons, shedding their silver bark in winter to reveal
a palette of colours from white, orange and salmon-pink to deep brown.

Prior to the invention of industrial chainsaws timber workers felled these magnificent giants using axes and crosscut saws. Picture two men standing on a platform constructed a meter or more up the trunk of the tree. In perfect rhythm they would take turns hacking at the trunk with their axes until they had opened up a deep, gaping yawn in the side of the tree. When the sounds of the axe changed from a dull thud to a hollow ringing-out, they would move to the other side and begin to saw, until the tree could no longer support itself. At that point it would let out a distinctive little squeal (no, really), warning the men to jump free, before beginning to fall on the ‘yawning mouth’ side. And at that point the size of the tree would become truly apparent. It could take up to a day and a half for two men to cut just one tree.

When chainsaws were introduced in the late 1950s, suddenly two men were able to fell three such trees in an hour. As the locals discovered though, and as the modern reader can probably guess, this rise in efficiency did not lead to a boom in the local economy. Rather, just ten years later in the 1960s Manjimup and the area around it were on very unsure economic footing. Logs piled up in the mills, as trees unsuitable for timber were felled at an increasing rate. Then the late 60s saw the development of the wood chip industry for export to Japan. Wood chipping was initially set up to generate income from forestry waste, but was now unleashed upon whole trees. It was described by local press at the time as, “A much needed shot in the arm for the Manjimup district,” which, “almost overnight wiped out the feeling of insecurity that had developed in the Warren area over the past few years.” The ‘booster shot’ was not to last; with the dwindling size of the forests and the ignominious end that wood-chipping was wreaking upon increasingly-scarce trees, there was a development of public concern for environmental protections. A concern that only increased over time so that twenty five years later the Manjimup community was in full defence-mode as pressure from environment groups to preserve old growth forests reached its peak, with protesters setting up camps on the farms of sympathetic farmers and blockades bringing work to a halt in the forests. Manjimup was widely portrayed (among the city-folk of Perth) as a town of hicks fighting to preserve an industry that was economically unsustainable and morally reprehensible.

In town meanwhile, the local paper ran the story on its front page for a year and the letters to the editor were full of debate, with passionate calls to preserve the forest and equally passionate cries to support the livelihoods of families. The local community was fracturing. As a teenager I went to the forest blockade myself. My dad, nervous about the repercussions of being seen on the side of the protestors, refused to drive me. In 2001 the West Australian Government caved in to pressure, or took on the responsibility to preserve our forests for future generations (depending on your place in the debate) and placed a ban on logging old growth forest. The impact on Manjimup was terrible. A thousand jobs were lost overnight, banks stopped lending, houses stood empty and businesses closed. The town fell into a deep depression.

Clearly though, that is not the end of the tale. Agriculture endured as a strut for the town, just not of the fancy, hipster variety… When I was a teen we’d picked potatoes for Edgells, to be canned or made into frozen chips. There was nothing glamorous about them. Now Manjimup potatoes are being sold as being ‘as good as any in the world’. Much like the trees of Founder’s Forest, new things have begun to grow in Manjimup. I wonder about it, and ask around.

All the locals I speak to say the same thing: The Southern Forest Food Council. It takes me a while to get the story. The festival is an unspeakably busy time for them and despite an appointment to meet their Perth-based Director Alan Burtenshaw, we don’t manage it. I trawl through the press kit they have sent me. It includes a very fine glossy brochure which features local farmers, immaculately posed with their potatoes, apples and avocadoes. The brochure is just a small part of the marketing work that the Food Council does for Manjimup: a massive campaign that includes newspaper, radio and television spots, all promoting the produce of the region.

All very slick, and clearly there’s some serious money behind them. But who are they?

In 2008, the West Australian government announced a scheme of Royalties for Regions, pledging to deliver six and a half billion dollars of mining royalties to regional WA. Hearing this, a group of Manjimup growers came together with the Shire (the local government body) and put in a proposal to get a piece of it. Their proposal included plans for town revitalisation work, and a ‘Manjimup agricultural expansion project’. Their successful application resulted in a designation of ‘Super-Town’ status, with the shire being awarded eleven million dollars over five years. The Southern Forest Food Council received five million of those dollars and seems to have put the monies to wise use, appointing a panel of three marketing agencies that collaborated for twelve months, researching and developing the brand that was finally launched in November 2013.

Although it is too early to measure the impact of all this clever marketing on the economic bottom line, the impact on the town’s psyche has been profound. The Southern Forest Food Council has united the community by creating a banner the whole town can rally behind. The mantra is clean air, clean soil, clean water.

Now here I am at the Truffle Kerfuffle. There’s money, interest and pride floating around here. I’ve found a sheltered spot in the ‘Paddock-to-Table’ tent and sit watching chef David Coomer, one of Perth’s culinary stars, prepping for a cooking demonstration and information session. Joining him will be Al Blakers, the self-declared ‘Father of the Manjimup Truffles’ (a nursery man by trade, he has made his fortune by being the first to inoculate trees to grow black truffles). Blakers’ name has come up repeatedly over the last couple of days, usually with descriptions of his long hair and fuck-you-all attitude. The Blakers family have been farming in Manjimup for generations, and this is usually enough to gain a family-member respect, if not affection, in the area. But despite this, it seems that Al is not exactly well liked in the community.

When Blakers does arrive to join Coomer on the small stage he is immediately identifiable with his description: long hair, not the sort that a vain man keeps; it is strange, greasy and unkempt. He has the hands and teeth of an enthusiastic smoker, and radiates an edgy, abrasive personality that can be felt at quite a distance. The tent is packed now. Coomer greets Blakers winningly and with a little smile shows off the chickens’ feet he has been preparing. Al’s reaction confirms my suspicion that Coomer has chosen to cook chicken feet to freak Al out, as well as to have a little joke – teaming the prized truffle with the part of a chicken that most of
us would throw away.

As they get started Al seems more than comfortable addressing the crowd. He dives straight into a well-polished story of how truffles came to be grown in Manjimup; a story in the legendary mode, with himself in the central role. Al makes it sound like sword and sorcery; smuggling spores though quarantine and inventing secret inoculation-concoctions so noxious that only his anosmic wife can boil them. After the show I ask Blakers why he thinks there has been such success growing black truffles in Manjimup, when all previous extra-Gallic attempts have failed. “Al Blakers,” he tells me. Which is to say, the difference is that this time it is him inoculating the trees on which they grow. I ask him about the peculiar chemical make-up of the truffle; he shrugs his shoulders and replies, “Some black shit.” I’m beginning to think he may be sacrificing facts for a good story, and go off in search of a more reliable witness.

Nick Malacjzuk is a former CSIRO scientist who, despite Al’s big claims, is the actual brains behind the Australian truffle industry. He is not at the Truffle Kerfuffle and is not often mentioned in the media, but when approached is more than willing to talk about truffles. “Al’s full of shit,” he tells me when I ask about smuggling spores through quarantine. The real story, as is so often the case with science, is more about years of study and planning than intrigue and magic. Mycorrhyzae or ectomycorrhizae are fungi that form close associations with the roots of trees (their name comes from the Latin words for ‘fungus’ and ‘root’). Malacjzuk cut his academic teeth studying the mycorrhizal fungi of Eucalyptus trees. The eucalypts are very dependent on their mycorrhizae; they extract otherwise inaccessible inorganic nutrients from the soil and feed them into the eucalypts’ roots. In 1989 he accepted a post-doctoral position to work on Eucalyptus mycorrhizae in plantations in France, and while over there he recognised that the famous black truffle fungus worked in exactly the same way. When he returned to Australia he resigned from the CSIRO, raised funds and bought a property in Manjimup.

What we call a truffle is the fruiting body of Tuber melanosporum, a species of subterranean Ascoycete fungus whose common name is the Perigord Black truffle, named after the Perigord region in France. Tuber melanosporum forms a close attachment with the roots of oaks and hazelnuts in particular.

In 1990s Manjimup, Malacjzuk and Al began working together; Al providing the oak and hazel seedlings and Malacjzuk inoculating them. The results surprised everyone. Although Australia only produces a fraction of the production of Europe, Manjimup now boasts the world’s largest single truffle producer, and each year the yields get bigger. Ever more trufferies are being established here and the black truffle, whilst still expensive, is gradually becoming more affordable.

Prior to the nineteenth century black truffles were a mysterious and highly sought after delicacy. Prized for their pungent, rich, musky flavour, they could only be found (if at all) for a few months of the year in the dead of winter, hidden underground. The secret of their cultivation was cracked in France in the 1810s by Joseph Talon. The breakthrough came when he transplanted some seedlings that had germinated at the foot of oak trees already known to host truffles. In this way he demonstrated that there was a necessary element not passed from tree to seed, but that could be transferred from the soil to a young tree once it had germinated. By 1855 they were giving out prizes for the best truffle harvest at the Paris World’s Fair. The recipient of the prize in that year was Auguste Rousseau, for a large harvest of truffles that he obtained from trees planted eight years earlier. After that there seemed to be no stopping the black truffle, and by 1900 production was measured in hundreds of tonnes. Truffles had gone from being a luxury afforded only by the very rich to something used by many people and on many occasions. It didn’t last though. Industrialisation caused a rural exodus, depopulating many of the farming regions. And then the First World War killed off an incredible twenty percent of the male working population. France’s trufferies were left untended, and such was the social disruption of these events that knowledge and techniques crucial for growing truffles were actually lost. By the start of the Second World War the last surviving trufferies petered out. The black truffle again became something wild gathered in the woods – something only the rich could afford.

I wouldn’t say that the ‘Kerfuffle is attended exclusively by ‘the Rich’, but there is certainly money here; the kind usually spent at the restaurants and wineries of established trendy towns like Margaret River. I have left the tent and am sitting on the edge of Fonty’s Pool, watching people walk by, their arms weighted with bags filled to bursting with local offerings. Both a spring-fed pool and the lovely park that it’s set in, there could be no more-perfect setting for the Truffle Festival. Found along Seven Day Road with green orchards and trufferies as neighbours, Fonty’s Pool is a significant place to the people of Manjimup. Built in the 1920s by Archie Fontanini whose descendents are still farming in Manjimup (but who no longer own the pool and it’s surrounds) the fresh water pool provides a beautiful backdrop. Tractor tyre inner tubes bump against the edge of the pool and I am so taken back to my childhood that I feel, for a moment, tempted to jump in despite the freezing wind whipping off the water.

I came to Manjimup with an idea: that it was funny that they were growing one of the world’s most sought after delicacies in such a daggy, bogan town. And in some ways it is funny. Most of the locals I talked to couldn’t care less about truffles, they haven’t tried them, and if they have tried them, they don’t like them. They tell me there were no locals at the Truffle Kerfuffle and yet… when I was there with my dad he was constantly talking to people he knew (he lost out on the marron raffle to another local). There is a sense of reserve from most I talked to. They speak proudly about the local produce, using phrases borrowed from the Southern Forest Food Council, but they are reluctant to get too excited about what it means for the future of the town. Just before the festival, Alf’s, a family run grocery store and deli, closed it’s doors after forty years of business and the town was still in mourning. The main street is still punctuated with empty shops, and unemployment is still a significant issue. But for all this there is a sense of anticipation and, for me at least, it has opened my eyes to what has perhaps always been present here.

I release myself from my reverie and start approaching people to chat about the ‘Kerfuffle and where they have come from. Sure enough, everyone I approach is from out of town. But what surprises me is that many of them have been to Manjimup before. A group of women who seem to have bought enough truffle oil, wine and chocolate to see them through the zombie apocalypse tell me they come here at least once a year. Their main draw is a meal at Sophie Zalokar’s Foragers in Pemberton, but they always stay in the area for more than one night, buying produce from farm gates, and wines from cellar doors. For them, at least, it’s not all about
the truffles.

 

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