Tonight’s dinner, and vineyard notes…

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One ripe bianchetto truffle, found for me by a rabbit, destined for tonight’s dinner. Nine grams, good strong aroma, just rolling around on the soil surface waiting for me to pick it up. Easiest truffle harvest ever. And there were a few more bianchetto in the ground waiting to ripen. This truffle growing business is a doddle ((No, it isn’t.)).

Meanwhile, followers of my tweets and/or the Limestone Hills Facebook page will know that on Saturday we picked our pinot noir. Six of us ((Thanks Neil, Graham and Denise, Alex and She Who Must Be Obeyed.)) picked the lot in four hours, and just under 450 kg of fine fruit is now sitting in a fermenter at Crater Rim turning itself into wine. Plus we have a few cases of our 2011 Côtes du Waipara recovering from bottle shock in the shed. I think I’ll open some of the ’09 with the truffle…

An Italian truffle in French New Zealand

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Here’s a strange thing. Our little Burgundy truffle truffière, which started producing for the first time this year, is also producing bianchetto (Tuber borchii) truffles. The truffle in the photo was dug up in early March, and I found it because it had cracked the soil above it to create a classic truffle “push up”. At the time, I assumed that it was an unusually large Tuber maculatum truffle, a brownish white truffle species which turns up unasked for in many New Zealand truffières. I regard maculatum as a weed species, though some people have been known to eat it. But…

I sent samples of our first Burgundy truffle to Alexis Guerin and Wang Yun at Plant & Food Research so that they could provide confirmation of species, and also sent along a piece of an unusually large “maculatum” for them to take a look at. The Burgundy truffle is definitely Tuber aestivum/uncinatum, but a look at the white truffle raised Alexis and Wang’s suspicions, and now DNA profiling has shown that the white truffle is actually Tuber borchii — a very tasty premium truffle. We’ve got a trial block of bianchetto-infected trees about 30 metres away from the Burgundy block, but that has not produced truffles (so far).

How the borchii found its way to Burgundy is a mystery. The most likely answer is that some trees were either swapped in the nursery or on planting, because the Burgundy and bianchetto blocks were planted at the same time. Now I have to go and have a look around the borchii block for Burgundy truffles. Confused? Moi?

Bottom line: Limestone Hills is now producing three premium truffle species, and the bloke who planted the trees is actually rather pleased, even if they’re not all where they should be.

Coming soon: vendange 2012 (looking good the night before).

Burgundy comes to Waipara

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I nearly tripped over it. I’d just dug up a rotten truffle from the middle of our little patch of oaks and hazels infected with Tuber aestivum syn uncinatum, the Burgundy truffle, and was pretty excited. It was our first Burgundy truffle and it was rotten and I couldn’t eat it, but that didn’t matter. The twelve year old plantation was finally producing truffles. Another long wait was over. And then Rosie pulled me off to another spot a couple of metres away and there was a truffle sitting in a little depression in the soil surface. 53 grammes of fungal goodness — not ripe yet, perhaps not quite fully grown — but I dug it up anyway. Call me impatient.

Ours was one of the first trial plantings of aestivum infected trees in New Zealand — oaks infected with truffle inoculum from Gerard Chevalier in France went into the ground in 2000 ((There’s a picture of Gerard with one of our seedling oaks in The Truffle Book, p131)), followed a couple years later by hazels infected with aestivum supplied by Christina Weden from Sweden. Both this week’s truffles were found close to hazels. Skol, Christina!

These are not the first Burgundy truffles produced in New Zealand. That honour goes to a trial plantation in South Canterbury, where a rotten truffle was found several years ago. But this is our first Burgundy truffle, and even though it may not be ripe we will eat it, and enjoy it for what it is — proof that a little vision goes a very long way, even if it does take a long time…

The good oil (not quite)

Shortly before we left for our big European tour — of which more later — the team from Restaurant Schwass (soon to be relaunched in new premises) popped up to Waipara to harvest our olives. The general idea was that they would take the olives and turn them into oil for the restaurant, and let us have some for our own use. But as you can see, they were a little — how shall I put this — underprepared for the size of the task. They left with olives for pickling. Oil will have to wait for next year, and a larger workforce. A good time was had by all. Rosie the beagle makes an appearance at lunch…

Rosie’s first truffle (again)

Here’s the first truffle of the 2011 season, found by trainee truffle hound Rosie ten days ago. We’ve been stepping up her training over the last few weeks, and she’s become very proficient at finding baits (35mm film canisters with small holes, truffle oil on cotton wool inside) buried around the garden. But before I’d begun the truffière training — she has to get used to the discipline of walking up and down the rows of trees — she found her first real truffle. And just to prove a point, she did it in front of a collection of scientists (including the eminent Prof Liu from China) and local growers. You could say I was pleased.

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It wasn’t all good news. The truffle season proper won’t get underway until late June, and the one Rosie found was beginning to rot. Some damage to the top of the truffle — insects, perhaps — had triggered rot, which in turn started the ripening process at least enough for Rosie to sniff it out. The bad news: a 60 g truffle lost, $180 rotting in the fridge. It’ll go into the freezer shortly, to be used in spring to spray extra spores around in non-fruiting parts of the truffière.

In other farm news, we harvested a small quantity of very nice syrah grapes last weekend. They’re now at the tender mercy of winemaker Theo Coles — who we’ll be working with over the coming year to get the vineyard really humming. With Theo providing expertise and doing the tricky stuff, and me doing the boring labour, we’re hoping to make the 2012 vintage a real expression of the terroir. In the meantime, limited quantities of the 2009 pinot and syrah are now available. If anyone’s interested, please email me for further information.

One week on: Christchurch earthquake Feb 2011

At 12-51pm today, New Zealand will stop to observe two minutes silence for the victims of last week’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch. The death toll is climbing remorselessly towards 200 as teams of urban search and rescue specialists from all over the world clamber over the ruins of what was once a beautiful city, recovering bodies from the rubble. The Renowden family escaped the worst: we’re all well, and our friends and colleagues seem to have escaped with their lives. But this tragedy will touch us all in many ways and for a very long time. Thanks to all the people who have emailed or made contact via Facebook or Twitter. Your kind thoughts were worth their weight in gold. If you can spare more, please consider making a donation to the Red Cross disaster relief fund.

[For more info and pictures, see my post last week at Hot Topic.]

Shocking amounts of shake, rowdy rattles and rather too much roll for comfort

4:35 am Saturday 4/9/10. Camille jumps out of bed yelling “earthquake”. The bedroom is swaying, and not in a good way. I grab my dressing gown and join her under the door frame. Biskits (cat) is faster than both of us and has taken up refuge on our bed. It’s a bit like being seasick — disorientating because everything’s moving. The house is creaking and flexing like ocean swells are running under us. It seems to last a very long time — 40 seconds, it’s said — and then noise stops and we start looking around. No damage at Limestone Hills — a few bits and bobs have got close to falling over — but it’s clear that someone has had a very bad time. Within a few minutes we’ve established that Tim and Emma in Christchurch are OK. Emma’s scared and under the living room table, and Tim’s picking his way through the damage at his girlfriend’s parent’s house in Halswell. Smashed crockery, TV on the floor, water slopping out of the spa pool and when the sun gets up enough to see, some very impressive cracks in the road outside.

Before 5am, the Geonet website is showing a 7.4 Richter earthquake about 30km west of Christchurch (near Darfield, 60-70 km from us), at a depth of 30km. Later this is revised to 7.1 and 10km depth. Radio NZ National (like BBC Radio 4 or NPR) is taking emails and tweets while they work out what’s happened. The presenter plays an oldie up to the news. Good Vibrations was not perhaps the best choice…

When there’s enough light to see, I take a walk around the farm. It’s a beautiful morning, crisp with a slight frost underfoot and a brilliant clear blue sky. No damage to be seen. Puppy cavorts happily at this early liberation from her sleeping quarters.

As the morning wears on, the #eqnz Twitter stream is reporting extensive damage in Christchurch. Pictures of broken roads, cars crushed by falling bricks start appearing. Doesn’t look good. But only two people reported seriously injured. 16 hours on from the quake, we still only have two people seriously injured but some amazing tales of escapes. There’s going to be a lot to rebuild in Christchurch, a lot of heartbreak, lost possessions and hard work, but as the aftershocks rumble on — a 6.0’s likely, so far we’ve had quite a few 5+ — there’s a real sense that today we dodged a bullet. And the faultline at Limestone Hills remains to move another day. Not soon, we hope.

[There’s a lot more I could write, about how Twitter got news flowing quickly, how the GNS web site is a superb resource, about the masterly RNZ National morning show once they got their act in gear, but now is not the time. Now is time for a toast to the health of everyone in Canterbury.]

Spring sprung (last truffle)

Time to declare the truffle season at Limestone Hills officially over. This morning we had truffled scrambled eggs for breakfast with daughter, nephew and niece (there’s a bit left over to go into a ripe camembert), and I very much doubt there any more to be found. Rosie (left, photo courtesy of Trish Coleman from the Norwester Café who brought her two poodles up here yesterday for a truffle training session) is beginning to play hide and seek with truffle-scented toys, but won’t be ready for serious work before next season. It’s been a reasonable season — spectacular production (750gm) off one tree has enabled us to sell a few truffles. Highlight was the look on Jonny Schwass‘ face when he dug up his first truffle, and on Camille’s face when we enjoyed the mammoth dessert platter at Jonny’s restaurant a week later. The low point was having to consign a 200 gm truffle to the freezer because it was rotten…

Meanwhile, the pinot and syrah are beginning to drink nicely, though it will be the New Year before I let anyone have any. We have one order for the syrah, which has been described as “delicious”. The 2010 grapes were a disappointment — mainly because the crop was decimated by birds — so we decided not to make any wine. We are changing the netting system for 2011, which should dramatically cut our losses. The big question is whether we make the wine ourselves in true garagiste style, or if a friendly local winemaker can persuaded to help out. Watch this space… Pruning in the vineyard is well under way, I’m planting 50 new truffle trees (evergreen or holm oaks, aka Quercus ilex), we have a dozen new fruit trees to go into the orchard, and there’s some pruning and soil aeration to get done in all three truffières. Spring work piles up all too quickly, and a puppy fixated on sleeping in my lap is proving bad for progress on the next book. But one look from those brown eyes, and who cares?

Rosie’s first truffle

Introducing new truffle hound Rosie, who joined us at Limestone Hills last Saturday and found* her first truffle on Sunday morning. Not bad for an eight week old pup…

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Here she is with the truffle…

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…which eventually weighed in at 188 grams, the largest I’ve yet found at the Hills (though a tiddler in record terms). Not perfectly ripe, so going to be used for friends and family. I know there are at least two more of similar size nearby, and I expect them to be fully ripe in a week or two.

(*) Truth be told Rosie didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on, but she did show a lot of interest in the smell. She’s a very bright, active little dog and I expect that she’ll prove easy to train. She’s doing “fetch” already (most of the time). Here’s another shot: this time she’s actually sitting on top of a truffle, more interested in chewing hazel twigs… 😉

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Note for photographers: This looks a lot like a flash shot, but was just the low midday sun on a superb clear day.

Peg’s last gig

Asia Downunder have just uploaded their recent programme on Professor Wang Yun and truffles, and as you’ll see, Peg has something of a starring role. She was more coherent than me, anyway. There’s plenty of fungal interest too, with shots of bianchetto truffles at David Powell’s truffière down the road, and picking saffron milk caps near Plant & Food Research’s Lincoln labs. The cooking section at the end was filmed in our kitchen garden. [Hat tip to Kadambari, the presenter, for letting me know when the clip was available]