NZ Lifestyle Block - - Feature -

Ta­nia Billingsley and her hus­band Kelvin have been de­vel­op­ing their truf­fière near Nel­son for al­most seven years, and have al­ready pro­duced bur­gundy truf­fle. They’re still wait­ing for their Périg­ord – test­ing shows ev­ery­thing is go­ing well un­der­ground – but Ta­nia sus­pects it needs more wa­ter over sum­mer.

“We’ve got friends in Nel­son (Peter and Re­becca, see page 22) who are pro­duc­ing a good amount of Périg­ord and the only thing that we can fig­ure out is we don’t wa­ter as much as they do. We didn’t have a good-enough wa­ter sup­ply, so this year we’ve put in an­other... we’re hop­ing that if we get our wa­ter­ing right this sum­mer, we’ll have a good win­ter crop.”

But wa­ter­ing truf­fles isn’t as sim­ple as turn­ing on a tap says Re­becca Hamid.

“We can wa­ter but wa­ter is not the same thing as rain. Ir­ri­ga­tion com­pacts the soil; rain just soft­ens it.

“We’ve heard of truf­fle grow­ers who de­cided ‘we need wa­ter in early au­tumn and you can’t have enough’ be­cause the year be­fore they’d had won­der­ful rain and got lots of truf­fles. So they start ir­ri­gat­ing and all they do is compact the soil and they end up with no truf­fles.

“Ours is a light sprin­kle with sprin­kling heads which give a more rain-like ef­fect… but there’s noth­ing like rain – rain has elec­trolytes in it, and it just does things to the soil that make it come alive.” Chefs will pay ex­or­bi­tant amounts for a gourmet truf­fle which adds a de­li­cious, pun­gent magic to a dish.

But truf­fles have a short shelf life and need to be sold fairly quickly. In NZ, you also need to search for chefs who know how to use them says Re­becca Hamid.

“There’s only a few chefs who ac­tu­ally understand what to do with them and how to use them prop­erly and ap­pre­ci­ate that they’re go­ing to be pay­ing for a truf­fle what they might be pay­ing for the whole week for their meat bill. How are they go­ing to use it in a way that they can get their money back in the restau­rant?”

One way is to sell it through a good con­tact who lives near some of Auck­land’s top restau­rants, which is what Ta­nia

Billingsley did.

“You feel a bit like you’re the mafia!” she laughs. “My mum lives in Pon­sonby… be­cause lots of the truf­fle grow­ers are in the South Is­land, I’d give them mum’s num­ber and she’d get th­ese chilly bag parcels ar­riv­ing and then she’d rock up the road to Si­mon Gault or Si­mon Wright at the French Café or to Si­dart and say ‘look what I’ve got, do you want to buy it?’”

An­other op­tion is ex­port­ing crops to France, Italy and other parts of Europe. While it sounds fine in the­ory and there are grow­ers work­ing on it, Re­becca says she can forsee prob­lems.

“We made con­tact with a truf­fière in the north­ern hemi­sphere and they have sum­mer truf­fles in their sum­mer and they didn’t par­tic­u­larly want our win­ter truf­fles in sum­mer – they have win­ter truf­fle in the win­ter so we might not find it so easy to sell our truf­fle to the north­ern hemi­sphere in their sum­mer.”

Jax Lee agrees, and is hope­ful it’s an at­ti­tude that will change.

“It’s some­thing that’s quite a tra­di­tional in­gre­di­ent in their cook­ing, they really as­so­ciate it with win­ter meals, so it’s been a lot of ed­u­ca­tion to teach them that they can have truf­fle salad and fresh fish and sum­mer meals as well. They’re very much into the heavy pasta and potato dishes which they all love, but they’re not eat­ing that at the time of year we’re pro­duc­ing so on the sur­face it looked all very sim­ple but there have been a few lit­tle bar­ri­ers to break through.”

De­vel­op­ing new mar­kets for truf­fle grow­ers is Jax’s long term goal. She is now a mem­ber of the NZ Truf­fle Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive and says even with all the over­seas con­tacts she and her dad have cul­ti­vated over many years, and the new peo­ple she’s meet­ing in the in­dus­try, it’s a lot of work.

“It’s been a bat­tle just get­ting all the ex­port pa­pers and li­cens­ing set up... there’s a lot of things to tick off as you go.”

But she be­lieves ex­port mar­kets are go­ing to be the key to prof­itabil­ity for grow­ers long-term.

“You can send 10kg at once and they don’t even bat an eye­lash, whereas here that would take me a few weeks to move. I’ll still al­ways sup­ply the lo­cals first and then go with the ex­ports and that’s where we’re push­ing – any of the smaller grow­ers can sell through us, be­cause it is prov­ing to be a lot of ad­min, a lot of work do­ing it.”

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