The Good life

The ups and downs of grow­ing truf­fles

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS SH­ERYN CLOTH­IER

It’s an un­der­ground trea­sure whose pro­duc­tion is un­pre­dictable, but a gas­tro­nomic de­light that chefs will pay $3500 per kilo­gram to thinly shave over a dish. But is it in Sh­eryn’s or­chard? Or is it a das­tardly trick of the sheep?

Truf­fles are not just cho­co­late balls rolled in co­coa. The ones that stir up a lot more ex­cite­ment thanks to their amaz­ing price per kilo­gram are an edi­ble mush­room that grows on the roots of trees.

The cor­rect term is ec­to­my­c­or­rhizal fungi and there are many dif­fer­ent types through­out the world, grow­ing on many dif­fer­ent types of trees. Most of them are north of the equa­tor and they are best eaten fresh.

It wasn’t long be­fore some­one de­cided it would be a good idea to learn how to grow them in New Zealand, and sup­ply the north­ern hemi­sphere in its off-sea­son.

Of all the truf­fles, the Périg­ord is con­sid­ered the elite. This black truf­fle orig­i­nates from the Périg­ord re­gion of France and looks like a lump of dirt. It is get­ting harder and harder to find th­ese tasty lumps in Europe, in part due to de­for­esta­tion, and sci­en­tists be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing ways to cul­ti­vate them.

By the 1980s, NZ sci­en­tists had their first trees ready for plant­ing and New Zealand har­vested their first few small truf­fles near Gis­borne in 1993. A new in­dus­try was born.

But 24 years later the truf­fle in­dus­try in New Zealand is still pre­car­i­ous. Pro­duc­tion is un­cer­tain, sto­ries of fail­ure and fi­nan­cial loss are more com­mon than pots of gold, and mar­ket­ing is dis­jointed and ad hoc.

Al­though I am as­sured most truf­fle farm­ers in NZ are se­ri­ous grow­ers do­ing it for the fi­nan­cial re­turn, the re­al­ity is it is a long-term, high-risk in­vest­ment. That is ex­actly what makes it fun, a big chal­lenge, and what makes grow­ing in­fected trees so in­ter­est­ing.

Since the Périg­ord black truf­fle is grown on oak and hazel trees, and oak and hazel trees would look very nice be­side my drive­way, I fig­ured they would be worth the $73.75 per tree in­vest­ment and I could have a bit of fun along the edge of my en­trance­way.

The first task was to ad­just the ph of the soil, which was then test­ing at around 6.4. The ideal for truf­fles is 7.9 which meant it re­quired the ap­pli­ca­tion of lime. Lots of lime.

The ph scale is log­a­rith­mic. Times ph 6.0 by 10 to get ph 7.0 and by 100 (10 x 10) to get ph 8.0. To ad­just the ph from 6.4 to 7.9 re­quires tonnes of lime ap­plied at in­ter­vals and hoed in over a num­ber of years.

Be­ing the pa­tient, sci­en­tific and pre­cise per­son I am (not), we bor­rowed a mate’s dig­ger and loaded my fa­ther-in-law’s truck

But 24 years af­ter it be­gan, truf­fle pro­duc­tion in NZ is still un­cer­tain

with waste fine lime from the lo­cal mill. By the time we’d re­turned the dig­ger keys and had a few beers it was dark so we de­cided to un­load the truck the next morn­ing. By morn­ing we had a truck­load of con­crete. At full hoist, with a bit of jig­ging, small chunks of lime slid off at the speed of the Fox Glacier.

By the time we shov­elled, pushed and pulled, we were very over lime. In­stead of it be­ing spread evenly over the soon-to-be truf­fière and hoed in, it was dumped in a pile with the rain left to wash it wher­ever.

Then the trees fi­nally turned up. While we were busy build­ing our house. They got planted, fenced and left to grow.

In those days (2008) I could only source com­mon oaks and seedling hazels in­oc­u­lated with the Périg­ord or Bur­gundy truf­fle fun­gus. Today you have the choice of Périg­ord or Bianchetto, the white Ital­ian truf­fle on com­mer­cial hazel­nut va­ri­eties, com­mon oaks, holm oaks, Turkey oaks, pine nuts or ra­di­ata pine.

Sev­eral years later I idly won­dered if the truf­fle spores could still be vi­able. No­body could or would give me a straight an­swer. They may or may not. I called a con­sul­tant and sent soil sam­ples away to a lab­o­ra­tory. My bank bal­ance suf­fered con­sid­er­ably and in re­turn I got a glossy folder telling me to spend more money.

I opted to buy a fire­place for the house in­stead and now I can’t find the folder. Maybe I used it as kin­dling.

Time passed and the trees grew into big­ger trees. The oak held onto its leaves all win­ter, look­ing rather dead and bedrag­gled most of the time in­stead of giv­ing us a show of au­tumn glory. The hazels shed pid­dley lit­tle nuts barely worth crack­ing. They gave some shade and shel­ter to the sheep, but mostly lan­guished, largely for­got­ten and hap­pily grow­ing as trees do.

A few years later I was re­search­ing an ar­ti­cle on truf­fles for the Treecrop­per mag­a­zine and talked with staff at Plant and Food Re­search with French-sound­ing names. They said my truf­fière could quite pos­si­bly be pro­duc­ing. I ex­plained about the lack of care (and money). They said other trees from my batch were pro­duc­ing on other plan­ta­tions – mine could well be too. I ex­plained how I didn’t hoe or spray the ground, just grazed the sheep un­der them. They ex­plained that the my­choriz­zal fungi are pretty hardy. I ex­plained about the dump­ing of lime.

They told me TO GO AND LOOK. I went and looked.

When truf­fles are grow­ing they out­com­pete and kill off grass, form­ing a bare brûlé (re­ally terre brûlé or ‘burned ground’) around the roots of the tree. You can imag­ine my ex­cite­ment to see there was a bare patch around the tree planted in the mid­dle of what had been the lime dump. An in­ter­est­ing side note: seven years later, I could still vis­i­bly see the layer of lime in the soil when I dug a test hole.

Pes­simistic, party-spoil­ing hus­band pointed out the bare patch was where the sheep like to sleep. Even the Plant and Food peo­ple in­sin­u­ated (po­litely) that my brûlé was pa­thetic.

How­ever, this is the Waikato. We do grow good grass here and the lack of it in­di­cated some­thing was afoot, or rather un­der­foot.

The prob­lem is the black truf­fle looks like a black lump of dirt so find­ing them is as much of an art as grow­ing them. Luck­ily pigs, par­tic­u­larly sows, have a keen sense of smell and a fond­ness for truf­fles as (ap­par­ently) the truf­fle aroma is near-iden­ti­cal to a pheromone pro­duced by boars pre-mat­ing.

Dis­con­cert­ingly, I re­ally fell in love with the smell of a fresh Périg­ord truf­fle the first time I smelt one, and I am not one to savour scent. It is a deep, strong smell, not over­pow­er­ing, nei­ther musky nor sweet, but quite un­like any­thing I have smelt be­fore (ob­vi­ously never hav­ing been courted by a boar). It’s not mouth­wa­ter­ing or per­fumey but some­where be­tween the scent of a good soil and a good af­ter­shave.

It’s the pheromone an­drostenol which cre­ates this aroma, ones also pro­duced to a lesser ex­tent in hu­mans, so I like to think I’m not that weird.

My pet Black Devon sow Sally hap­pily fol­lowed me any­where so we went for a walk down the drive one Sun­day. She went straight to the bare patch, grunted around en­er­get­i­cally for a few sec­onds, then pro­ceeded to hap­pily graze for the next half an hour while I watched her anx­iously. I couldn’t see any­thing where she grunted and ruf­fled but one lump of dirt looks a lot like a truf­fle and there was no way I was putting my hand be­tween a 200kg sow and a swine aphro­disiac so I will never know for sure.

But all points were pos­i­tive. I looked at my small col­lec­tion of oaks and hazels anew and be­gan to call it a truf­fière.

While talk­ing to other grow­ers, I ran­domly heard that slugs eat truf­fles. A lit­tle alarm went off in my head: we have

I ex­plained about their lack of care. They told me to go and look!

a se­ri­ous slug prob­lem here. When we were look­ing to buy the prop­erty, I had to take off my jan­dals to walk across the grass be­cause there were so many squashed slugs and slug slime in be­tween shoe and foot, it was im­pos­si­ble to walk. I have had ducks free rang­ing for 10 years and have gone through hun­dreds of dol­lars worth of or­ganic slug bait. By trial and er­ror, I am rather an ex­pert at col­lect­ing, trap­ping and stop­ping slugs (I will write about this one day).

But if slugs were eat­ing my truf­fles, the war just went up a de­gree or two. I be­gan keep­ing the grass shorter, graz­ing harder and mow­ing more of­ten, and I spread bait un­der the trees. I got more ducks.

The bare, pos­si­ble brûlés got big­ger. The another tree de­vel­oped a bare ring around it. Dis­con­cert­ingly, a def­i­nite sheep track linked the two.

I queried Plant and Food if sheep could track the my­c­or­rhizae from one area to another. The re­sponse was a photo of a real brûlé, much larger and more ob­vi­ous than my lit­tle bare patch. I re­frained from point­ing out that my grass is rather good – lush and strong – and any­thing com­pet­ing with it has to be lusher and stronger and pri­vately con­sid­ered all points were still pos­i­tive.

I or­gan­ised a foodie week­end and booked a dog.

Un­like pet pigs, a trained dog will mark the truf­fle and al­low you to dig it up. Karen and Indi the cocker spaniel from Truf­fle Dog Ser­vices oblig­ingly ar­rived while we were harvesting and cook­ing and eat­ing all man­ner of yummy foods. The fresh pasta was rest­ing and we were all set to turn my first fresh truf­fle into the ul­ti­mate of gourmet de­lights. We rugged up in warm jack­ets, locked our dog away and traipsed down to the truf­fière.

It is im­por­tant for a truf­fle dog’s health that the ground is free of prick­les, prun­ings and nasty things that can get in her feet or snout. Luck­ily our fre­quent mow­ing in the rain had fi­nally killed my rather abun­dant crop of Cal­i­for­nian this­tles and the un­der­storey looked like a lawn.

Indi put her nose to the ground. She was on a leash, di­rected by Karen, and sys­tem­at­i­cally searched around each tree.

She ran straight over my maybe brûlé with­out stop­ping. She didn’t pause for a sec­ond.

We hud­dled in the cold for a while watch­ing her, then re­turned to the warmth of the kitchen to make pasta with fresh herbs.

Karen was ex­tremely nice about it all and ar­ranged for me to join her at another hunt at a real, pro­duc­ing truf­fière. John Triegh’s plan­ta­tion is a to­tal con­trast to mine. His trees are in straight rows, tidily pruned and the ground sprayed bare un­der­neath. He re­ally did spend sev­eral years ap­ply­ing and hoe­ing in tonnes of lime.

And he had truf­fles. Indi in­di­cated, John poked with a wire and for the first

time in my life I saw a freshly-har­vested, gen­uine Per­giord truf­fle.

Like me, John had never tasted a truf­fle be­fore de­cid­ing to grow them. Truf­fles are best eaten fresh and that’s al­most im­pos­si­ble un­less you know a grower. Much of the avail­able truf­fle oil is ar­ti­fi­cially made. The truf­fle-in­fused camem­bert I have pur­chased in NZ is made with im­ported truf­fle pow­der. So the key ques­tion was, are truf­fles re­ally worth all the hype?

John said the NZ Truf­fle As­so­ci­a­tion ce­mented his in­ter­est, and they have “din­ners to die for” at their AGM, along with a match­ing wine list. He also said a ripe truf­fle keeps only for a very short time, about 10 days. That means, if and when you find one, get­ting it to a top-end res­tau­rant and hawk­ing it, and the chef putting it on the menu and the cus­tomer buy­ing it, all has to hap­pen rather quickly.

There are a cou­ple of dis­trib­u­tors buy­ing, but the un­cer­tain sup­ply and limited shelf life makes get­ting them to mar­ket tricky.

You can use them in salt, but­ter, even ice-cream ap­par­ently. Any­thing that will take their flavour. John be­lieves there is po­ten­tial in creat­ing a hard truf­fle cheese and would like to hear from any­one in­ter­ested in ex­per­i­ment­ing with this.

Mean­while, I might sprin­kle a lit­tle bit more lime.

The most ex­pen­sive one to grow is the Périg­ord black truf­fle.

ABOVE: My idea of a brûlé. RIGHT: Plant and Food Re­search’s idea of a brûlé.

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: Hag­gis do­ing a double check on Sh­eryn’s ‘ brûlé’; Indi and Karen hunt­ing through John Treigh’s truf­fière; John care­fully clear­ing dirt around one of Indi’s finds; pink marks the spot.

Karen, Indi and John dig­ging for real truf­fles.

John’s first real truf­fle.

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