September 04

Monday dawns sunny and warm. By the time I've got the tractor full of diesel and hooked up to the cultivator (and the iPod firmly attached to my belt), I'm beginning to feel distinctly hot. There's a bit of a nor'wester blowing, the sky is very blue, and the tractor is behaving itself, so I tie the amazingly charming truffle hound to her chain (to prevent her disappearing, tail up, in pursuit of me, but mostly rabbits - for hours) and chug off to the truffière. The tillage proceeds well. The tines (see first entry in this category) are supposed to loosen up the top 10 to 20 cm of soil, generally aerating things before the truffle mycelium begins its spring growth. This is supposed to encourage the formation of truffles. I live in hope.

At lunchtime, the hound is ridiculously pleased to see me. She's been wailing piteously, I'm informed. News to me, of course, because a rusty old Kubota that saw its best days on a Japanese rice paddy is not the quietest tractor on the planet, and it was being masked by the iPod on random play. Apple assure us that track sequencing really is random, but it is astonishing how often a sequence of tracks presents itself as perfect for the circumstances. I only had to skip tracks once or twice. Sigùr Ros are not the ideal soundtrack for truffière-tilling.

The afternoon starts warmer, if anything. Over 20C, at a guess (I'll know more in a few months, when the air temperature datalogger in the truffière is downloaded). The cultivation continues with only a few minor hassles, but at 4pm the wind changes direction and a band of cloud starts motoring across the sky from the south. Distinctly chilly blasts start whistling down from Mt Brown. By 5pm I've finished. The sky is covered with ominous cloud and it's getting parky. So I return to the farm and the dog (whimpering with delight), and set about lighting fires to warm the place up.

By Tuesday morning there's snow on the ground - about 5cm, at worst - and the temperature's hovering around 1C. Spring weather on the east coast of New Zealand is notably variable, but this is ridiculous. The upside is that all this moisture is going into the freshly tilled soil - brilliant preparation for some serious tree growth - unless, of course, we get some hot gale nor'westers in the next month to burn all the young leaves before they have a chance to toughen up.

Now I've only got to till the two small plantations of trees infected with Tuber borchii and Tuber uncinatum, and the majority of the spring work will be finished. Apart from the mowing - but the news there is not good. My ride-on has suffered terminal engine failure (bits of metal have been thrashing around inside doing nasty things that have only expensive remedies), and I have to fork out for a new motor. Bugger. And the grass is still growing.

Fresh off the wires, from the ABC in Australia: news of this year's truffle harvest in Western Australia.

“Western Australian truffle growers are hoping to enter the commercial market next season after this year's bumper crop. The state's biggest trufferie in Manjimup has produced 100 French black truffles this season. That compares to last year's production of just one.

Scientist Nick Malajczuk says some of the truffles sold for $2,500 a kilo. "We sold all the produce to local restaurants in Western Australia - we just didn't have enough to sell to the eastern states or overseas," he said.

He is expecting an even bigger crop next year and hopes to become a force in the global market. With about five smaller trufferies in the south-west, he is also looking to form a truffle co-operative to boost export.”

Good news for Australia's truffle growers, of course, but why the hell can't they call their truffle plantations truffières, not trufferies. The proper word might be a bit harder for the Aussie tongue to get round, but if they really hope to have an impact on the world market. they might find a smattering of real French of some assistance.

Meanwhile, in Italy the white truffle season in the Marche is about to begin. Tuber magnatum might even be more affordable this year. I know where I want to be right now, and it isn't mowing the lawn.

“Are you having a good day?” I refrained from telling the girl at the petrol station the full story. She would have murmured polite commiserations, then glazed over and gone quiet. So I lied. A little white lie.

Yesterday was supposed to be a full day on the farm. I was planning to do the soil work in the truffière, provided that the Roundup had done its job. It had, but there was a bit too much dead grass in one or two places. I’d have to clean that off with the weedeater before using the cultivator or it would get clogged with vegetation every few metres, forcing me to stop, back up a bit, then jump off the tractor and clear the tines. Tedious, inefficient and time-consuming, when all you want to do is drive and juggle with the lever that controls the hydraulics. The weedeating, I decided, could safely be left for John (the bloke who helps us out two or three days a week) to do in the morning. I would therefore mow the lawns (last done a week ago) and orchard (first of the season, beginning to look shaggy).

On the walk back to the farmhouse, I spotted a few rabbits in the gullies and decided an immediate diversion to shoot the bastards was required. Back in the house, I grabbed the gun and some ammo, and then hooked the iPod in its new farm-proof case on to my belt, ready for the mowing. I wandered along the cliff top and vineyard, and got three of the furry little herbivores. If you get a clean shot, they just fall down the slope - if you don’t, they can leap and squeak piteously in their death throes. I shall not reveal how good my shooting was. Three dead rabbits is only a small dent in our population, but it helps. I put the gun away, and started the mowing routine. This includes, from time to time, removing thistles and weeds from the lawn, so I did that for a while, then went to start up the mower. No iPod. The air would have turned blue if I’d done more than sub-vocalise the epithets that sprang to mind. Repeatedly. I then retraced my steps. Repeatedly. Including the peregrinations with gun (substantial), and the random tracking across the lawn. I cursed the fact that I’d chosen a farm-proof case in a sort of nondescript brown, not bright red or yellow. If it had dropped off my belt at the top of the cliff (we have a 30 metre limestone cliff down to the river on one side of the garden), it might now be at the bottom, and I would have to spend the rest of the day risking life and limb to try and find it, and if I did, it might no longer work. But silver linings also sprang to mind, involving insurance claims and a brand new iPod… until the damn thing turned up at the start of my third retracing of steps. Working perfectly.

The mowing went well. The front lawns looked quite smart, and I decided that I could make some headway on the orchard before lunch. Bad move. I managed to break a blade in the mower’s deck, so had to stop promptly. The engine would then not restart, just making a sickening, expensive-sounding clunk every time I turned the starter knob. Once again, the sub-vocalisations were not particularly inventive, but heartfelt. I had to go and get the farm bike (a four wheel drive job that I use mainly for spraying) and then tow the mower back up to the garage. And then take it down to the local engineering company that services Stigas, only to find — as you might expect when everyone suddenly discovers an urgent need to mow their rapidly growing grass, a queue of ride-on mowers requiring attention.

A week, I would guess. With luck, this flip-flop spring weather will flop over to cold, and growth will slow down. We’ve had several days in the last week with the temperature nudging 20C, and although there is some cold weather forecast, it has a habit of blowing past us. There’s real heat in the sun now, the soil’s warming up, and spring is moving fast. I hope the same can be said for Gordon the engineer.

I have a Google News Alert set to email me whenever something truffle-like pops up on the net. Ninety percent of the time it's stuffed with restaurant reviews where ambitious chefs are overusing wholly artificial truffle oils to be trendy, or chocolate is involved, but sometimes it comes with a gem like this one from the BBC. Not only does it feature an English village straight out of Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders - Little Bedwyn - but it reports the finding of 10kg of summer truffles (Tuber aestivum) on one farm.

Not much time for musings on this - too many bills to pay - but I rather hope my T uncinatum are as prolific…

The Truffle Book is a work in progress. Very slow progress. I'm writing this entry as a warm-up to writing about the chemical constituents of truffle aroma, about half way through chapter three. If I make any serious inroads on that chapter, then the word count in the column on the right will ratchet up a little more. This blog is a way of publicly committing myself to getting the thing written and published, and as long as blogging doesn't replace real work, we'll be OK. I hope.

In 1999 I wrote The Olive Book, intended as a guide to growing olives in the southern hemisphere. It was the book I'd wanted to read when establishing the olive grove at Limestone Hills, and because olive growing has become fashionable in Australia and New Zealand, it's sold reasonably well. We're not talking big numbers here, because there aren't that many olive growers around, but I still get an occasional royalty cheque.

The Truffle Book was intended to be the follow-up, but rather than write a guide for growers (Dr Ian Hall has that market sewn up), I wanted to write an entertaining and informative work for general readers - something along the lines that worked so well for Mark Kurlansky with Cod and Salt. There are quite a few books about truffles in French and Italian, but beyond a few recipe books (mostly translations) and Ian Hall's seminal The Black Truffle, there's nothing much available in English. If you're interested in truffles, my book will tell you more than you ever thought you wanted to know, from the fact that Australia's rare long-footed potoroo gets 80% of its food from indigenous truffle-like fungi, to how to train a dog. (Peg is watching me write this - she's obviously bored rigid).

I started work on the project in 2000, and toured France and Italy that autumn doing research. I also started talking to a London publisher about the book, and through her ended up doing some work on a project for a US publisher. Nothing came of that, although a book bearing a suspicious resemblance to my initial proposal did appear some time later. I made a few more attempts to find an international publisher, but by the end of 2001 I decided that I'd just have to write the damned thing and let the publishing look after itself. So why the three year delay? Difficult to say, really. Probably the biggest single reason is that without the pressure of a publishing deadline, and a publisher breathing down my neck, other things tend to take priority. Things like farm work, articles and photography for Growing Today, and Truffle Association business each seem more pressing. And if you've read the first entry in this blog, you'll see that I like to have big chunks of time to write effectively, and they don't come together all that often.

When the words are finished, I'll do the design and layout myself, and then the book will published by Limestone Hills Ltd in both electronic (pdf) and paper form. You'll be able to download the first couple of chapters free of charge from the Limestone Hills website, and buy the whole thing for about 10 Euros/US dollars. If you then want to buy a paper copy by mail-order, you'll get a full credit for your download purchase. The paper version of the book will also be available in selected bookshops in New Zealand, and perhaps Australia. If publishers in the US and Britain are interested, they can license bookstall editions, and full translation rights will be available for other territories.

This blog is, in a way, part of the promotional campaign. You not only get to read the book (eventually), but you get all the fun of following its creation. Which is what I ought to be doing now.

Let us suppose you are fortunate enough to get your hands on a truffle. A lovely fresh Perigord black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) of decent size. It doesn't need to be large if it's a good one — and with this season's NZ selling price steady at NZ$3,750/kg (roughly E2,000/kg or US$1,100/lb), it's unlikely to be a very big one, at least for personal use. I emphasise the words "good" and "fresh". It is possible to spend a lot of money on little jars of preserved truffle, but though they have a role in cuisine, their flavour is a pale shadow of the fresh truffle. Many of those jars also contain truffles other than the echt melanosporum, but you might need a magnifying glass to discover that from the label.

A good truffle is a smelly truffle. A perfectly ripe truffle will smell wonderful and have a distinctly black interior veined with white. Less than ripe truffles will have less colour in the flesh and have less aroma. A truffle that's getting too old will smell much less attractive — more like rotting cabbage. Experience is the best guide, but unless you have access to loads of truffles it's an expensive education. That's one of the reasons why I'm trying to grow them…

This winter our trainee truffle hound, the amazingly charming Peg, did more than become New Zealand's first champion truffle dog, she found her first real truffles. Her remuneration was a perfect little truffle, but I swapped that for very large meaty bone. I don't know who was more excited, me or the dog, but if I'd had a tail it would have been wagging hard.

The amazingly charming Peg.

Truffles have an affinity for eggs, so here's what you do with your first truffle. Get some eggs. Fresh, free-range eggs, the sort produced by chickens that live in lovingly hand-tended hen houses with designer runs and plenty of things to peck, preferably with a little light classical music playing while they lay. Good eggs. Take a plastic box with a tight fitting lid (I never thought I'd find Tupperware interesting), line it with kitchen paper then fill it with the eggs and put the truffle inside. Close the lid tightly, and put the box in the warmest part of the fridge. Leave it there as long as possible. This requires willpower, but if you can last 24 hours the result will be worth it.

Take the eggs out of the box. Melt some butter in a frying pan. Make scrambled eggs, and while they're scrambling gently, shave some truffle into them. Put the remainder of the truffle back in the box with some more eggs. Eat your brouillade, because that's what you've just made, with some red wine and good bread (sourdough, lovingly hand-kneaded by a Paris-trained maiden , for preference). I hate waiters who present your food and then command you to "enjoy!", but in this case, I'll make an exception. Enjoy.

Repeat until you run out of eggs and truffle.

In this way, I was able to stretch that little truffle a long way. In fact, even after I had eaten the last crumbs of truffle, the left-over eggs were still powerfully aromatic. Truffled fried eggs and bacon for breakfast? Not to be sneezed at.

Next time I get some fresh truffle — which is unlikely to happen until next June, at the earliest — I will also try storing the things with rice. Just as the eggs absorb the scent, so the rice becomes infused, and makes a delicious risotto. Or so I'm reliably informed. I shall enjoy confirming that observation.

I don't like using "chemicals" on the farm. I'm sometimes asked if we farm organically (as our neighbours do, with their cute little Dorper lambs gambolling around at the moment), and I usually reply "nearly". Organic except for Roundup. Roundup is brand name for glyphosate, a weedkiller that is supposed to be one of the least harmful to the environment. It doesn't hang around in the soil for long, and is very effective. We used it to keep the soil around our trees free of weeds, so that the little plants could grow without competition from grass and stuff. It makes a big difference to their rate of growth. Now they're big enough to look after themselves, our usage has gone down markedly. Last year, I hardly used any at all.

One reason for that reprehensible failure to enrich the purveyors of agrichemicals was the discovery that glyphosate seemed to have a bad effect on certain mycorrhizae - the "fungus roots" formed by fungi living in symbiotic associations with plants. I have some Pinus radiata (Monterey pine) infected with Lactarius deliciosus (Saffron Milk Cap) as part of a trial with Crop & Food Research , the scientific outfit who got truffle growing started in New Zealand. I used Roundup round them when first planted, and I haven't yet produced any mushrooms, whereas those left to their own devices in other plantations have all produced. I hope mine recover! When that bit of bad news hit home I took a strategic decision not to use Roundup in the truffière on the grounds that it might be have some similar sort of effect. Last year's weed control was done by hand - or to be more exact by weed eater. But then a neighbour who has trees the same age as mine started producing truffles - and he'd used Roundup. I reviewed my strategy. This year, one spray in spring before doing the soil work will suffice, then the weedeater will go back to work.

Yesterday was a magnificent day — cloudless, still, and after a light ground frost dried off, warm enough to discard sweaters and sunny enough to require sun cream. A perfect opportunity to do some spraying. I didn't have any mechanical problems, the wind didn't start blowing the minute I reached the truffière (as it usually does), and all was right with the world. But I felt guilty. Having eschewed the stuff that screwed up my milk caps, here I was applying liberal quantities (actually, given the way I felt about it, it was probably neo-con quantities) to the soil. My fingers are firmly crossed.

Next job was to feed the citrus trees that grow along the north side of the house. Several lemons, limes, a cumquat, tangelo, mandarin and grapefruit make a rather snaggle-toothed but fruit-laden bed, and over winter they've been developing yellow leaves.

Tangelos, yesterday. Very tasty indeed.

In our high lime soil, this means not enough magnesium, so the first step was to apply liberal quantities of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). Then a general citrus fertiliser. I bought a bag of Yates finest, and set to applying the stuff. Then I read the label. "Use of this product may result in cadmium and mercury levels in fruit above permissible levels." What? I read it again. Apparently this fertiliser, specifically designed for citrus and fruit trees, which - and please correct me if I'm wrong - people normally grow because they want to eat the fruit, will eventually poison the fruit to the extent that we shouldn't be eating it! Can this be legal? Being realistic about this, I suspect that they have to put that statement on their product even though the risk of it actually happening is small, but even so, had I read the small print on the label on the shop, I would have bought another product. I shall cerrtainly use no more.

My father, bless his large cotton socks, suggested an organic alternative that involves citrus skins and copious quantities of human urine. I would welcome a more savoury alternative.

Next task: driving the tractor and cultivator round the truffière…

It's started again, as I said it would. The grass is growing, and we have rather a lot of it. It takes about three hours on our Stiga mower to do the garden lawns. When the olive grove, vineyard and truffière need doing, you can bank on spending a day puffing around on our little Japanese ex-rice paddy tractor with its "slasher" on the back. In spring, warming soil temperatures and plenty of soil moisture mean that you can watch the grass growing and not get bored.

Almost a man and his mower

Sitting on your lawn mower and cutting grass is like going to the gym and working out. Not because you get hot and sweaty and well-exercised, though you can get hot and sweaty when the temperature's in the 30s (Celsius), but because you get some uninterrupted time when the brain can freewheel - getting hooked on thoughts or songs or phrases. When the words come, they sometimes stay long enough to get written down. It's not like staring at a blank page, more like letting a blank page whirr around until things start to appear on it.

Irritatingly, if a song comes to mind in the first few minutes - after the critical decisions are taken; to mow down or across or diagonally - it can stick. A phrase or melody will bounce around between your ears and under your ear defenders until it becomes intensely annoying. And if it happens to be an Abba tune, or - much worse - something involving goatherds or whiskers on kittens and unsexy nuns - then if someone notices you singing along you lose any cool you may have carefully cultivated.

Last year's solution to the music problem was to borrow my son's portable CD player and sit on it, it not being belt-mountable. And as the average CD lasts less than hour, it meant stopping a few times for refreshments. Not efficient, but worthwhile. Using this method I have had mowing epiphanies with the Wondermints (better known as Brian Wilson's backing band) and Pulp. You need something fairly loud: the hammering clatter of a small petrol engine is not helpful to delicate music, even under big black plastic ear muffs.

This year's solution is an iPod. My birthday present. Currently holding a shade under 3,000 songs. It's serving music to the kitchen radio at the moment via an iTrip mini FM transmitter (Caravan, if you must know), and it is marvellous. The only thing I need to find is an iPod case that is farm proof. Apple's belt thingy doesn't inspire much confidence, and the earphone buds tend to get dislodged when you put the ear defenders on. I'd like some hi-fi quality headphones built into farm quality ear defenders, and an iPod case that will protect my little white wonder from dust and dirt and being dropped on the gravel drive. The latter is an important consideration. Last year I manged to drop the family Sony P5 digital camera out of my pocket onto the drive and then reverse over it with the mower. It survived, and works - a miracle - but has a badly cracked LCD screen that would cost more to replace than buying a new camera. Ho hum.

I can hear the grass grow. The Move, wasn't it?

When can I start the justification process for a G5 PowerBook?

I do all my non-farm work (and the farm accounts) on a four year old Apple PowerBook G3 (Firewire), known to its friends (and there are many) as a Pismo PowerBook. I bought it in September 2000, just in time for my truffle research trip through France and Italy, and it's since bumped along with me to the USA, Argentina, Britain and Australia. About a year ago it began to feel rather slow. It wasn't new anymore. The PowerBooks in Magnum Mac looked shinier and sleeker and faster. The sluggishness was partly because I insist on using the latest iteration of Mac OS X, and partly because I was converting to digital photography and doing more work in Photoshop and InDesign - getting ready for the production of The Truffle Book. I began to feel that "time for an upgrade" itch.

But: I bought the Pismo five months before Apple introduced its first G4 laptops. I felt momentary envy, but my computer was still new(ish) and I was happy. Last year saw the first G5 processors find their way into the desktop line, and my laptop hit its third birthday. The Mac web immediately began speculating about how long it would be before a G5 PowerBook hit the streets. A year on, the speculation continues. I could, of course, do the rest of the Mac world a favour and go and buy that rather smart 1.5GHz G4 PowerBook to hasten the introduction of the G5s, but I don't want to. A G5 seems to be the future, and that's where I want to be.

In the meantime, this little Pismo has had a heart transplant. I sent it off to Daystar in the States to have a 550MHz G4 processor fitted, and at the same time replaced the hard drive with a 40GB model. The whole process took only a little over a week - not bad for a return trip to Georgia - and the results have been excellent. Photoshop is much more responsive, and everything seems a lot snappier. Xbench tells me that it's a little over twice as fast as before, but on some things that benefit from the G4 chip's Altivec add-on (like Photoshop filters) it's getting on for seven times faster. Very worthwhile, and not hugely expensive.

So when is Apple's G5 laptop going to make its appearance? Your guess is as good as mine, and nowhere near as good as Steve Jobs'. There are some beguiling hints that Apple and IBM have some very interesting new processors in the pipeline. A month or two ago, a posting to the AppleNova forums by an apparently reliable source indicated that a new dual-core G5 processor was on its way - the 970MP - and that made headlines. All very interesting, and great news for Apple's desktop computers, but if you read to the end of that AppleNova thread, you'll see that the same poster is now dropping hints that another version of the 970 is on its way: the 970GX. The current G5, found in the iMac and PowerMac, is the 970FX, and it already includes IBM's PowerTune technology - a system that IBM says makes it suitable for laptop use. The GX is obviously one step beyond. Maybe that's what's going in the G5 PowerBook. Early next year? Don't hold your breath, but do check the forums!

Meanwhile, my Pismo feels comfortable and warm, like a cosy pair of slippers, and if I smoked a pipe, I'd be puffing contentedly in front of the fire with the truffle hound curled up by my feet. Dreaming about G5s.