Hunting for anything with a pulse makes my blood run cold, but an invitation that was a little different caught my eye among a slew of e-mails. Tracking the objects of desire in this case would require the help of Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, which were initially bred in Italy for retrieval in water but are now used to hunt for “black gold”. The prospect of a day out in the Cape winelands with dogs was all the encouragement I needed.
The occasion was to celebrate the very rare and very edible fungi also known as black truffles, which are finally in evidence at Anthonij Rupert Wyne’s Altima Estate in Elandskloof near Villiersdorp. The dogs love nothing more than being able to sniff them out. It’s the ultimate reward for a project 10 years in the making – this particular plot was identified and oak tree roots inoculated with truffle spores and planted in September 2010. This is the first time that the harvest has warranted sharing it with the public.
Truffle hunting at Altima is Hanene van Dyk’s baby and her pack of specially trained hounds was eagerly awaiting our arrival. That day it was the turn of papa Dick and daughter Zara, who needed some training practice. The dogs are taken out in pairs during the day, responding alternately to calls and praise in Afrikaans and Italian as Van Dyk hastens to keep up with them. Their heightened sense of smell means they can detect the fungi underground long before we can, and she has to make sure she gets to their find to check, mark and – if ripe enough – extract them very carefully before the dogs do. “The dogs are never wrong,” says Van Dyk. “You can believe them. If they show you a spot, the truffle will be there.”
Unlike pigs trained to do the same thing, these dogs have no desire to eat the truffles, but if they scratch, break or unearth them before they are sufficiently ripe, they affect their value and consumption. How long do they take to ripen? “It’s hard to tell. You just have to work with nature,” says Van Dyk. The ripe ones have a distinct, mouthwatering aroma, whereas the unripe ones have what she calls a “very sharp, synthetic smell, like the smell of smoke from a campfire on your clothes”.
Anthonij Rupert Wyne is the first wine estate in South Africa to both cultivate and produce black Perigord truffles. While in stock, they are used to make truffle butter and salt and to delicately flavour a special lunch menu at the estate restaurant in Franschhoek after the hunting excursion. The courses are perfectly sized and subtly enhanced with truffle caviar, carpaccio and butter so they are entirely satisfying and not too rich.
The cool conditions and exceptional terroir in the isolated Elandskloof are just as good for the grapes cultivated there, and the four-course meal is paired with a particularly delicious Cape of Good Hope Altima Sauvignon Blanc and Cape of Good Hope Sneeuwkrans Pinot Noir. They were my favourites among the three options that also included a Cape of Good Hope Serruria Chardonnay.
• Truffle lunches are limited to 10 people and will be available every Friday and Saturday until July 20. Booking is essential. The cost is R950 per person, inclusive of the paired wines. For enquiries and reservations, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or contact 021-874-9041.