Truffle harvest newsletter #2 (June 2013)

Winter is here: Ground frosts are crisping up the morning grass but the sun is still shining and early winter is looking green and pleasant in the Waipara Valley. Truffle dogs are out and working in the region’s truffieres, but Rosie the truffle machine still finds time for a little rest and recreation:

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(Rosie reviews the valley from the steps at Black Estate)

Our Burgundy truffles are back in production, with a very nice 240 gram truffle delivered to Saggio di Vino in Christchurch last Friday, and a 38g truffle despatched in a slice of ripe brie and in breakfast scrambled eggs for visiting friends. Gareth has counted a further 19 truffle “push ups” — truffles pushing up through the soil surface — so there will certainly be more available over the next couple of months. If you are interested in sampling our Burgundy truffles as they ripen, please email Gareth and he’ll add you to the list. First come, first served, as always…

Bianchetto truffles: We’re hoping to start harvesting good ripe truffle very soon, and expect to be able to despatch existing orders in the next week or two. Once again, let us know if you want to add your name to the list.

Périgord black truffles: Rosie’s sniffing around on a weekly basis at the moment, but as yet we have no sign of ripe truffle.

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Truffle Harvest newsletter #1 (May 2013)

Back in May, I started a Limestone Hills truffle harvest newsletter. I’ve just sent out the fourth in the series – the last for the year. I had intended to parallel post the newsletters to the blog, but for a number of reasons (one of which has been dealt with by moving the Limestone Hills site to a new web host), I never got round to it. This, therefore, is by way of catching up. It was originally mailed out on May 7th. To sign up to our newsletter, fill in the box in the sidebar.

The story so far: summer 2013 has been a wonderful time for Burgundy truffles, and our tiny little patch of trees continues to astonish us with its productivity. I blogged about the most recent record-breaking monster – all 533g of it – here, and the earlier 529g big boy featured on our Facebook page and in The Press. Both truffles were sold to Saggio di Vino, who made excellent use of the beautifully aromatic truffles. Burgundy truffle has also been on the menu at Black Estate in Waipara (excellent truffle butter), and served at Roots in Lyttleton. So far this year we’ve produced nearly 5 kg of truffles, but not all were saleable. We’re still learning about quality control with this species, and we’re not willing to let truffles go if they’re not going to give a good account of themselves when they hit the plate.

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Our bountiful Burgundy summer

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Monday, March 18th 2013: it’s raining — drizzling, to be exact — the first substantial rain since the end of January, and we’re out in the truffle trees with Paul Thompson from POD Gardening. He’s shooting a photo essay about Limestone Hills and truffles, so Rosie does the business and sniffs out a ripe Burgundy truffle of 533 grammes (that’s the lump under her nose). It’s the largest Burgundy truffle we’ve ever harvested, beating the 529 g monster we dug up at the end of January. It’s currently being enjoyed by the patrons of Saggio di Vino in Christchurch — as was that first one. Here’s a close up:

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The scar at the top was caused by my efforts to excavate the monster, but shows the hazel/chocolate-coloured flesh rather nicely. There was plenty of nice aroma — a great truffle — and further evidence of just how productive this little patch of trees seems to be. So far this year we have harvested 4.446 kg of truffles. Some was over-ripe, and will be used as inoculum to produce more Burgundy-infected trees, but the best have been wonderful. This is no second-rate truffle: it’s an affordable ($1 per gramme, as opposed to $3/g for bianchetto and Perigord black) taste of the real thing. I was quite pleased…

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Paul’s full photo essay will appear at POD Gardening soon. Meanwhile, I will be out getting the other truffieres into shape for the harvest — mowing grass, felling weeds and trying to tread lightly to avoid damaging any crop. The bianchetto season looks promising — Rosie’s already found a couple of not quite ripe truffles — but I have my fingers crossed for the Perigord black. We’ve had a hot summer — good for melanosporum — and I’ve been providing plenty of water, but it will be a while before I get a feel for what might be going on. The heat has also been good for the pinot noir: there’s what looks like an excellent crop hanging in the vines, and Theo the winemaker tells me it’s tasting good. More fingers crossed…

We got lucky

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For Christmas consumption, a Burgundy truffle of a little under 200 grammes unearthed on Christmas Eve at Limestone Hills ((Photographed on Christmas morning, ribbon by C Russell.)). Not really very ripe, but it made a very nice addition to a champagne cream sauce ((Half bottle of fizz, truffle peeled and cut into thick matchsticks, bubbled together until reduced by half, then cream stirred in and simmered until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, poured over the cooked cray meat at the point of serving.)) for the enormous crayfish ((aka lobster, but without the big front claws.)) we enjoyed for a light lunch. Probably the first fresh Burgundy truffle ((Technically, Tuber aestivum syn uncinatum, known as the Burgundy truffle in Burgundy (!), or the summer truffle in Britain.)) to be eaten at Christmas in New Zealand. There are five more in the ground, and I’m waiting to see how long they’ll take to ripen properly — or if they do so at all. It’s supposed to be an autumn to early winter-fruiting truffle, after all. In the meantime, the compliments of the season to all.

Rosie’s big day at Bell Hill

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Marcel and Sherwyn at the Bell Hill vineyard near Waikari have joined the ranks of NZ’s white truffle growers, thanks to the exploratory efforts of Rosie the truffle machine. I took her over the hill yesterday for a sniff round the trees — Bell Hill have Burgundy, bianchetto and Perigord black trees, as we do at Limestone Hills ((From the same nursery batches, too.)). I thought the bianchetto block looked promising, with lots of rabbit interest round the trees, and after a slow start Rosie got into her stride, finding a beautiful large bianchetto close to an oak. The look on Marcel’s face is not one I shall ever forget – big grin, bright eyes, extreme pleasure writ large. Unfortunately, a couple of minutes later I was laid low by a Menières episode ((Never pleasant, and I’m very grateful to Marcel and Sherwyn for getting me home safely.)), but Rosie kept going with Marcel, eventually finding around 300 grammes of good truffle (see above).

I’ll be back at Bell Hill later in the week to see if their Perigord black truffle trees have also started fruiting — but I’m not guaranteeing success. Having spoken to local growers, it looks as though this is not a good season for the Perigord black — at least in Canterbury. Last summer was cool — and perhaps too cool for a good harvest. At Limestone Hills we’re well down on last year, though the remarkable productivity of out little bianchetto block, and the excitement of finding our first Burgundy truffles, including one of 330 grammes, has helped to keep our spirits ((And sales.)) high.

That big Burgundy truffle gave us an excuse to do a bit of PR with top Christchurch chef Jonny Schwass. We set up a special three truffle dinner at Schwass in a Box — Jonny’s post-earthquake mini restaurant come private dining experience, located in the corner of a furniture showroom. Here’s the menu:

  • Bianchetto, Grilled Cheese & Whipped Lard
  • Egg Yolk, White Polenta, Reggiano & Perigord
  • Bianchetto & Smoked Lardo Risotto
  • All Three Tortellini
  • Quail, Parsnip & Burgundy
  • Pork, Cauliflower & Bianchetto
  • Potato & Perigord
  • Burgundy filled Brie de Meaux
  • White Chocolate & Bianchetto Zabaglione
  • Salted Caramel Fondant & Burgundy Ice Cream

It was an outstanding meal and a great evening. The Burgundy truffle ice-cream was magnificent, and the sous-vide potatoes with their truffley buttery unctuousness were superb, but every course was a triumph in its own way. We’re looking forward to repeating the exercise next year in Jonny’s new restaurant, and perhaps making it an annual event.

Our truffles have also been featuring on the menu at Amberley’s excellent Nor’wester Café for the last month, and I’ve spent a couple of Saturday mornings at the Waipara Valley farmers market selling truffle. Meanwhile, Jonny has just collected a consignment of bianchetto for a lunch he’s cooking for the editors of all NZ’s food magazines this week. Small, but perfectly formed — that’s our harvest. You could say the same for Limestone Hills in almost every way.

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)

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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…