May 06

Some of the wilder shores of molecular gastronomy are to be found in a newly-resurgent Japan, according to The Sunday Times. And truffles have a role to play...

"One course consisted of a piece of tissue paper impregnated with the smell of truffles: just the smell — no actual truffles were to be ingested."

Not much of a role. Cheap dish, though - I expect there's a bottle of Truffarome on the shelf at the Tapas Molecular Bar.

Kalahari truffles look like "dessicated donkey dung", according to Robyn Dixon in the LA Times, but they taste good and there's a bumper crop this year, thanks to a particularly wet summer in the Kalahari.

"When Dumenikus Freeman, 40, of the Nama tribe was out hunting for truffles last month, he happened upon a haul to remember for a lifetime. In a typical season, he might walk for hours and find a few truffles. But Freeman, his wife and children, hunting in the roadside grass, were plucking out truffles every few seconds. Sitting on the ground beside his donkey cart was a sack with at least 15 pounds of truffles, and it was only midmorning. Heavy rains had robed the Kalahari in luxuriant green this year, instead of the usual red dust, and spawned prodigious amounts of truffles, a bumper season unlike any that people can remember."

Kalahari truffles are Terfezia pfeilii, a close relative of the desert truffles of North Africa and the Middle East. They lack the strong aroma and flavour of the French and Italian Tuber species, but they are still very good eating, as Dixon explains:

"Namibians are as inventive about Kalahari truffles as others are about the potato. They bake them, boil them, puree them, slice them raw with salt or serve cooked slices in a salad. Some barbecue them or grate them over pasta. Some fry them in lashings of butter and eat them on toast. Some recommend wrapping small ones in bacon and baking them whole. Others whisper their own secret: Cook them, but let them sit a night and eat them the next day, the flavors richer and enhanced. They like to slice truffles into thick disks or chunky cubes, with none of the delicate shavings, thin slices, strips, trimmings and peelings that the French truffle is usually subjected to."

Another country to add to my world truffle tour.

The incredibly charming Peg is being reminded of her chief purpose in life. This is not to wander around the garden annoying the cats, or to consume the butcher's fine bones, nor yet to sleep on my daughter's bed, but instead to apply her very fine nose to the task that will soon be at hand - finding truffles. She's getting regular reminder sessions with truffle baits (35mm film canisters with a little truffle oil on cotton wool inside and holes cut in the lid to let the smell out) buried in the truffiere, and is finding them with her customary ease. In three or four weeks the season will be beginning, and she will find me my first truffle. Or not.

The coming NZ season looks promising. There are reports of good signs of truffle from several established producers, if not yet at Limestone Hills. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Tim Terry in Tasmania tells me he has just harvested his first of the season. By accident. A trainee truffle hound did the business. Not yet fully ripe, though.

Autumn turns to winter, and the courgettes give up the ghost. The big green leaves become covered in white powdery mildew, and the little fruits struggle to ripen to a reasonable size. Some are misshapen, some rot at the end. So I picked the last one, grabbed a couple of the yellow tomatoes and a large ripe Evergreen, plucked the remaining little Japanese aubergines, and made a ratatouille. Not a proper ratatouille, where you fry all the bits separately and then assemble the whole thing at the end, more a vegetable stew. Some garlic in olive oil, fry the sliced courgette until it's browning, then throw in the aubergines (being little, they need no chopping), and the chunks of tomato. Add as much basil as you can get from the pathetic stalks left in the garden, and stew for 30 minutes. Very nice indeed.

I can strongly recommend costata romanesco, cocozelle and goldrush courgettes. The romanesco plants are incredibly productive, and the baby marrows will turn into adults overnight if you're not careful. Fantastic flowers, too. The aubergines that work best in my garden are Japanese Long Toms. They don't get to the 17.5cm length they promise in the book, but they are prolific and tasty. This year's tomato discovery is Evergreen. Large, tasty and, yes, green. The prize for prolific production goes to the tomatillo. Incredible numbers of fruit from just a couple of plants. Will become a regular in the kitchen garden, I'm sure.

It's a "truffle set". Available at Amazon for a mere US$300. For a little glass jar, a truffle slicer and a brush. Without truffle. No comment, I might get sued.