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).
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…
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.
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.
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?
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…
Here she is with the truffle…
…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… 😉
Note for photographers: This looks a lot like a flash shot, but was just the low midday sun on a superb clear day.
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]
I’ve been using this little image of Peg’s self-cleaning olfactory apparatus as my web presence for years. It’s my gravatar and the favicon here and at Hot Topic. It was shot for The Truffle Book in 2005, when she was two years old and already a champion truffle hound. She died on Monday morning, poisoned by eating pindone bait laid to control rabbits. The bait was in stations designed to stop dogs getting to it, but beagles are greedy and resourceful, and somehow she managed to eat enough to kill her. The poison hit her in a way that fooled us all, vet included. Right now, I’d trade a thousand rabbits and the ire of my neighbours to get her back.
So I showed the first truffle of the year to Charles & Marie, staying with us for a couple of nights during the NZ leg of their world tour, and today decided to push my luck with a couple of other potential push-ups. And there was a good-sized truffle under each. Difficult to give any real idea of size, but they’re probably a good 50g each. Here’s hoping they get through to the end of June unharmed…
Impatience is a terrible thing, but sometimes rewarding. Today, no longer able to resist poking at one of the suspected “push ups” in the truffiere, I scraped at the soil — and found a truffle. If it makes it through to maturity it’ll be a good size — perhaps 75 g or more. It’s been recovered with soil, and will be treated with great respect for the next couple of months while it summons up the wherewithall to ripen. And so to bed (with a grin).
Michael Hyson’s first truffle is still growing — “being pushed up from underneath”, he tells me. Compare this picture (above) taken earlier this week with the one taken when he first found it — there’s definitely some inflation going on, and we can see that bugs and slugs are beginning to enjoy a feast. If I were you, Mike, I’d be covering that big boy with soil and sand… The local press have also been covering Mike’s success, including his urgent need to train a truffle dog. Meanwhile, closer to home (in fact just down the road) local grower David Powell has found his first bianchetto (tuber borchii) truffles, on eight year old trees.
David summoned me to his Broomfield truffiere ten days ago, and there were plenty of bianchetto to be seen pushing up around his trees. That’s great news for David and for the Canterbury region, which now boasts four black truffle and three bianchetto producers — making us the leading New Zealand truffle-growing province. This early crop of truffles is unlikely to fully ripen, however, so we’ll be waiting for winter and the main crop to savour his success.
Back at Limestone Hills, we’ve been having some truffle and mushroom fun as well. This lovely plate of mushrooms was cooked by Professor Wang Yun and his French colleague at Plant & Food Research Alexis Guerin-Laguette on my barbecue last weekend.
In the centre, we have a saffron milk cap prepared by Alexis in the Provençal manner: grilled over charcoal with the cap holding a generous dash of local olive oil, garlic and parsley. Wang then stir fried some porcini with onion and garlic. This was all done for the benefit of TV NZ’s Asia Downunder programme, who were filming a profile of Wang. We strolled around our trees with Peg, pretending to be on a hunt for truffles, examined roots, and I told tales of Wang’s exploits in the truffle business. Great fun, and the mushrooms were delicious. The show will be broadcast in May, and available on Youtube soon after. I’ll link to it as soon as it’s up.
The best news was that Wang had a good look around my small Burgundy truffle patch, and found excellent truffle mycorrhizae. That’s exciting, because it means the truffles could be close to fruiting (this year, or next?), and that would be a first for New Zealand. Consider my fingers crossed…