August 06

I've been tagged for a food blog meme*, which is a first (thanks Bron). Not being a proper food blog, but a blog that does food from time, I'm probably a bit of an interloper - and I'm certainly going to find it hard to "tag" five more food blogs (one of the rules). I'll do my best.

The meme comes from The Traveller's Lunchbox, and the idea is to come up with five "things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die". It's an interesting challenge, and over the last couple of days I've been remembering all sorts of meals in all sorts of places. And therein lies one of the challenges. I have especially fond memories of a plateau de fruits de mer, eaten in a restaurant on the inner harbour at La Rochelle, but do I remember it because of the excellence of the plateau, or the happy combination of circumstances surrounding that meal? Same thing with a bottle of white vin de savoie that was elevenses at a little restaurant on the slopes at Serre Chevalier. A magic moment to be sure, but worth inflicting that wine on everyone? Probably not. So I have settled on five things that I have eaten and enjoyed and remembered and loved, not simply because of time and place, but on culinary merit (though you may choose to differ). And whakapapa* plays a part too.

1. Andouillete

Offal sausage, or awful sausage? A specialty of Troyes, and found in every Relais Routiers in France, this is a working man's saucisse, a sausage of strong flavour and challenging appearance. Cut it open and admire the strips of pork tripe and large intestine, flavoured with onion and parsley. I've seen grown women turn away in horror... but with good mustard and some fine pommes frites, the andouillette is something I have to eat at least once when visiting la belle France.

2. Bara lawr

Welsh seaweed dish, known to the Sais as laver bread, traditionally eaten fried in oatmeal with bacon for breakfast. The seaweed is quite common around the world (I've eaten it in NZ) - there is a Japanese name, but I can't recall it - and in Wales it's washed and then boiled for four hours or more until it's a green glutinous mass, still redolent of the sea. And if the bacon you eat with it is farm-cured and bought in the market at Carmarthen or Cardigan, then you have something simple but wonderful.

3. Germknodel

This is pretty close to a time and place thing, because I have only eaten it in restaurants on the slopes at St Anton or Lech, although it is a speciality throughout the Tirol. Consider a dumpling the size of a baby's head stuffed with stewed plums, topped with poppy seeds and icing sugar and dressed with melted butter, and reflect on the challenge this presents to post-prandial skiing. Delicious, but difficult.

4. A sun-ripened apricot, warm from the tree

Looking through other bloggers' lists of five, there are plenty of exhortations to take freshly picked, sun-ripened or just landed things and apply them to the palate. So I am not being original, but I include my apricot because I planted apricots (and other fruit trees) at Limestone Hills because this was an experience I'd read about (Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, I think) and wanted to try. Every summer I watch the apricots, willing them to ripen, so that I can revel in the sheer apricotness of the fresh, sun-warmed article. This isn't just worth doing, it's worth moving to a place where it's possible in order to do it.

5. Tuber magnatum, on anything

No suprises here. The first meal of this truffle set in train a sequence of events that led me to Limestone Hills, and it is one of the tragedies of modern science that no-one has yet worked out how to successfully cultivate this fungus (though there are tantalising hints that it might soon be possible). Not oil - never oil - just the fresh article, shaved thinly on a buttery tagliatelle, or plain risotto, or stirred into and shaved onto an emperor amongst omelettes. So good I wrote a book about it.

So who to "tag" with this: I can't do five, but I will suggest that Mark Bernstein - another occasional foodie like me - might like to have a go.

Aunty's been showing a bit of interest in truffles recently. Aunty BBC, that is. I don't quite know how they got hold of the idea, but the Charlie Crocker Show on BBC Radio Kent decided they wanted to talk to someone about truffles in New Zealand, and they picked on me. Charlie invited me on to her sofa (virtual, in this case) on Monday evening, Kent time - 7-15am, sunrise in NZ, and we chatted merrily for half an hour. You can listen to the show on the web, at least for a week. It's a fair while since I've been on the BBC. Back in the early 80s, when I was being a video guru, I used to claim that the only BBC station I'd never been on was Radio Three (the classical music station).

Meanwhile, over on Radio Four, their correspondent has been truffling his way round Bill & Pat de Corsie's truffiere south of Sydney, where 500 five year-old trees have produced six kilos of truffles this winter. On the way they've encountered one or two uniquely Aussie problems...

"The bloody wombats were getting in over the fence," Bill tells me. "We had no idea they could climb." Installing an electric wire has solved that problem, but it is still no deterrent to the local kangaroos, which simply hop over.

You can probably ferret around on the BBC and find the audio. From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 26 August, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4.

Over the last few months, I've been a regular visitor at the web site of the NZ Climate Science Coalition, a loose affiliation of local global warming deniers who are trying (rather desperately) to influence the public debate about policy responses to climate change. I don't want to go on about them at great length here, but I have been spending time debating and debunking some of their more outrageous misrepresentations (I'm being polite) of the science of the issue. Suffice to say they don't like the Kyoto Protocol...

One man has been particularly vociferous in those debates - the "long range weather forecaster" Ken Ring. He believes that the Moon and its movements allow him to predict New Zealand's weather years in advance. Random House publish Ring's forecasts in a thick ring-bound almanac - the 2007 almanac is due out in September (and this year, there's an Australian version). Ken is an aggressive debater - and denier - of global warming, but his grasp of the subject is rather idiosyncratic (I'm being polite again). You can find some of his views if you track back through this thread at the NZ CSC site, or get added perspective at Tim Lambert's excellent Deltoid blog.

And so, in the course of dispute, I found myself undertaking to "audit" Ken's forecasts. Not quite a climate audit, perhaps (not a hockey stick in sight), but an attempt to see if his published forecasts have any skill (ie, are they useful). Ring isn't shy about claiming successes - after all, public profile helps to sell books (as I know) - but is there any real merit in his method? Has the world of weather and climate forecasting overlooked a real breakthrough?

I have therefore created a new Ringworld topic (see sidebar), and over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting the first results of my review of Ring's forecasts for the year to date. The posts won't appear on the front page (if I can work out how to do that in Tinderbox...). Ordinary truffle and farm posts shouldn't be affected too much.

Email of the morning arrives from Nigel Hadden-Paton at Truffles UK, who has just had a good day out in Wiltshire:

"We sat at a table in the garden and brushed our spoils clean, then weighed them. Over 4 kilos of top quality [summer] truffle and a further 2.5 kilos of damaged or maggotted truffle — to be used for inoculum. Not a bad day at the office!"

In 40 minutes. With time to take some excellent pictures. I feel a bout of Home Thoughts From Abroad coming on.

A long time ago, on the edges of a city far, far away, I used to spend a lot of time in late summer and autumn hunting for wild mushrooms. I got quite good at it - good enough to seldom return home empy handed. This was the early 90s, and most of my competition for the fungi of West London came from expat Europeans, especially Poles with sticks. A few chefs - most notably Antonio Carluccio - were popularising what Russians call the "quiet hunt" and using the harvest in their cooking, but the supermarkets hadn't caught up with fashion.

One morning at the height of the season, not long before we left for New Zealand, I arrived at one of my favoured sites - Esher Common [map] (a remarkable place, where Brian Spooner from Kew has recorded over 3,000 species of fungi, making it the most fungally diverse spot ever studied) - to find the car park nearly full. There must have a dozen or more people unloading bags full of mushrooms into boxes. It was my first encounter with commercial picking, and they must have systematically hoovered their way through the woodland, because I could find nothing at all.

The legality of commercial picking is however open to question, as this piece by Peter Marren in The Guardian explores...

"Can we have open access and yet ban mushroom picking? In theory, we can. Any landowner can apply to the local authority for an order against blackberry pickers, moss gatherers or butterfly collectors. In this land of the free, any of Mother Nature's bounties, even the meanest, sourest berry or nut, is deemed to be private property. In the case of the New Forest, which is managed by the Forestry Commission, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) decided that it owned the mushrooms. In the 1990s, it banned commercial picking over the entire forest, and banned foraging for mushrooms altogether in certain woods."

Marren then goes on to describe how Defra then tried to prosecute a little old lady for picking mushrooms in the New Forest, only to find the judge throwing the case out as waste of his time. Good on His Honour...

Let it never be said that blogging doesn't pay. A couple of months ago, I got an email from the team at Food & Wine magazine in New York, asking me if I'd be interested in interviewing NZ food writer Annabel Langbein for their September issue. Interested I most certainly was, and I popped up to Auckland for an enjoyable day with Annabel. I might even have persuaded her to plant some truffles. Writing the piece was a challenge, but now the final version's appeared on the F&W website I find I recognise most of the words, and some of them are even in the order in which I put them... Thanks for the job, Salma.

All commissions gratefully received: farm and truffle hound to support.

Country Life, National Radio's farming and country programme, covered the truffle business on last week's show. I took producer Tania Oolders down to Ashburton to interview John and Iris Burn, and you can hear Peg having her refresher course in the Burns' truffiere. Tania also interviewed Carolyn Dixon of Crop & Food Research, and Bill Lee, who is setting up a new truffle tree nursery (working with Tim Terry). It's a good 30-odd minute summary of the state of the business down here, and well worth a listen. Audio stream and podcast available.

Looks like it's turning out to be a good truffle season in Australia. Tim Terry has announced his first shipment of truffles to France, and Perigord Truffles Of Tasmania (PTT) are about to ship to Japan. Meanwhile, a New South Wales grower tells me that she's harvesting a kilo a week from five year old trees.

Tim's waxing lyrical about his harvest. In an item on the ABC's The World Today he says:

"It's the beginning of a coming of age, if you like. We've gone from producing a truffle, now to producing enough to put a small trial shipment into Europe, and now what we want to do is get some more feedback from them, saying we want 500 kilos a week. And that's the sort of feedback that we are getting. They want a lot of truffles and we can't supply them at the moment."

He's clearly a happy man:

"Here we are in the foot of the Great Western Tiers, there's a bit of snow on top of the mountains today, Spring, the birds are happening, truffles coming out of the ground. It's just a magnificent place and great to be alive, isn't it?"

As they say down here, good on ya, mate. Transcript here. Podcast available, but you may have to dig in the archive (originally broadcast August 3rd).

So, the proud possessor of a 26g truffle from Ashburton, found by Peg last week when she was having a mid-career refresher course, and as the good lady wife demanded it, I set about making a midwinter truffle pizza. Off to Canterbury Cheesemongers, where they were fresh out of buffalo mozzarella, but were happy to supply good flour and some fresh yeast, and then a rummage round the supermarket for some of the more ordinary mozarella (from Kapiti Cheese).

Back to the farm to get the oven going. It's been a fair few months since it was last fired up, and it was getting to late afternoon. In summer, it takes three to four hours to get up to pizza hot, which is fearsome (I had to buy a long sleeved oven glove because putting my arm in to the oven was singing the hairs). So I got the fire going, and made the dough. I used the recipe from Nikko Amandonico's book again It's very straightforward: make the dough, divide into pizza balls, and leave to rise. Then roll them flat, stretch them a bit, and cook. Easy - and good.

The oven was being notably slow in heating up. By 8pm, our stomachs were suggesting that dinner should not be further delayed, but the oven was a fair way short of full heat. When it's ready for pizzas, the interior stops being black with soot, and becomes white. A pizza cooks in a minute or so. All I could see in the light of my new headlamp LED torch was a little white patch. It would have to do.

The pizzas were simple to prepare. I shaved some thin truffle slices on to the bases, and covered them with thinly sliced mozarella. Some good olive oil brushed on top, and out into the oven. They did not cook very fast by wood-fired oven standards - perhaps four minutes before the crust was browning. This is what mine looked like...

Two criticisms. The length of cooking had reduced the truffle impact - probably evaporating more aroma than a short, sharp burst of heat. The good lady wife took issue with the crust, preferring an all white flour base, rather than the mix of white and wholemeal I'd used. But they were still rather good. I also made a simple cherry tomato and mozarella pizza for second helpings.

The counsel of perfection: leave more time for oven to heat up. Use buffalo mozarella and white flour. Experiment with thinly sliced cooked potatoes as additional topping to help seal in truffle flavour. Be generous with the truffle. And do it more often.