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
“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.”