Rosie’s first truffle (again)

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.

Spring sprung (last truffle)

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?

Rosie’s first truffle

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.

Peg’s last gig


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]

The purple fingers of oblivion

The purple fingers are from the wine we bottled today: 22.5 cases of Faultline pinot noir and 11.5 cases of Côtes du Waipara syrah, oblivion a warm place under a duvet in the near future. The bottling was done by hand, which means with a syphon into the barrel of wine (racked off its lees), into bottles which were corked by hand (using a wonderful old, slightly rickety, machine with a big lever on top), capsules heat-shrunk on to the tops, and then packed into cases. I took the siphon station, hence the purple fingers — which are now more black than red as oxidation runs its course. The wine now has to rest for at least six weeks to recover from the shock of bottling, and will improve further with time. If I can resist the temptation…

Yesterday we harvested the 2010 pinot vintage: about a barrel’s worth, as last year. The depredations of birds accounted for at least the same again — cue much discussion about improvements to netting for next year, focusing on the use of contrivances designed to push the nets out and away from the bunches of grapes so that the birds can’t just push their beaks through to the fruit. It’s far too early to say how good this year’s wine will be, but I have to be down at Waipara West by 9am in the morning to process the fruit through a de-stemmer and into a fermenter. Then it’ll be regular visits to plunge the caps. Rob the winemaker will make sure nothing goes wrong.

Thanks to all our friends who helped over the two days, especially Barry & Sue who did both days, Peter, Richard, jet-lagged Charles, Scott and Camille’s aged parent Norman, who picked through the cold drizzle and demolished the pig(*) with great relish, and Julie who arrived in time for the pig and stayed to help with the bottling. Your collective company made working a pleasure.

(*): Being a half a shoulder of pork, boned and rolled with the skin on, treated with a dry rub of Louisiana spices (paprika, cumin, chilli, cayenne, pepper & salt, brown sugar, etc: recipe originally nicked from Trevor in London at least 15 years ago, and now a family favourite), then roasted in a low oven for at least three hours (preferably longer — I usually use the Webber BBQ and some mesquite chips, but it was a bit wet for that), served with a sweet and sour garlic sauce (simplicity: vinegar, brown sugar, lots of garlic boiled together), baked kumara (Pacific sweet potato), and a green salad. Not forgetting some substantial wine — it needs to be to deal with the robust flavours of the pork. Barry brought a meaty Aussie GSM, which was more than up to the task.

Wine update: grapes nearly ready…

The 2010 grape harvest is getting closer: the grapes are ripening well, and we’re aiming to pick them on Easter Sunday. Time to muster friends and family and offer them a good feed… This year the wine is being made by our neighbours at Waipara West, and I’ll be helping out by doing some of the plunging. The ’09s will be going into the bottle the following day, and these are the latest versions of the labels I’ve designed. Nothing will be available for two to three months, because the wine has to rest a while after bottling. Should be ready just in time for the truffle season…

Truffle dogs and Chinese truffles (but not Chinese truffle dogs)

Since we’re in catching up mode, here a couple of articles I’ve been meaning to make available for some time. The first is a paper [PDF] on Chinese truffles commissioned by Gastronomica (the prestigious US food and culture journal) in 2008, which draws heavily on my experiences in China in 2007. It discusses the impact of Chinese truffles on the world truffle market, and the prospects for the future.

Admirers of Peg the beagle (and dog lovers in general) will enjoy this six page feature [PDF] from New Zealand’s Pet magazine (issue 47, June-August 2009). The truffle hound’s on fine form, but please ignore the pictures of her boss. Jean-Paul Pochin did a great job on the words and pictures.

Second wine: 2009 syrah & pinot to be bottled soon

Stunning, that’s what Nicholas said. The winemaker, that is, about our first syrah. Quite made my day, I can tell you. I tasted a barrel sample today, and I have to say I thought it was pretty good — though naturally I’m biased. The pinot’s not bad either: a lot more colour and complexity than last year’s first effort. We’ll be bottling both wines in about a month — we should have about 25 cases of pinot and 12 of syrah. Some may be available for sale, but I’ve no idea of prices yet.

The 2010 grapes are looking good under their nets. It’s a been a warm, dry summer so far, and I’m expecting a slightly bigger crop than last year, but with good concentration. Now that we’re moving into late summer and early autumn, all we need is some of those long dry weeks Waipara’s famous for…

Christmas, wishes

Boxing Day, and hangdog shame strikes. No updates to On The Farm since April. Plenty of effort at the other place, but naught here since the pinot harvest (which went well, thanks to help from friends). We have a barrel of pinot and a half barrel of syrah to bottle in a couple of months time. Nick the winemaker, pushed by me to give me some idea of the quality of the wine, said that if it had come from his vineyard he’d be pleased. So… we wait. Might have some to sell.

Bad year for truffles. Nothing at Limestone Hills or our neighbours in Waikari — a poor season in Canterbury generally, brought on (my theory) by a marked drop in temperature in mid-February. Add to that an early start to winter (I picked the syrah in May, with snow on the grapes), and I think there just wasn’t enough heat over late summer and autumn to get the truffles going. Fingers firmly crossed for this year.

And so, as we drift towards a new year, there is (as usual) a lot for me to do on the farm, cleaning up the trees and getting the irrigation system primed for any dry spell, plus shoot thinning and sulphur spraying in the vineyard. I’ll be on RNZ National’s Summer Report (morning news show) at 7-50am on New Years Day, talking truffles, and I’ll be duty Sciblogger on Noelle McCarthy’s morning show at about 10-30am on Jan 6th. Then there’s the new book. I need to spend more time writing it. Finishing it. Publishing it. If all goes to plan (ha!), then I’ll post a draft of the introduction and first chapter here before the end of January. But don’t hold your collective breath…

And, before I forget, nadolig llawen!

King harvest (has surely come)

Pinot harvested today, thanks to the good offices of friends, family, an Italian student winemaker and an itinerant American drummer. Two big barrels full, so we should do better than last year, but I’ll know the numbers in a day or so when the grapes have been crushed. Meanwhile, the syrah sits in the vines, waiting another week or two. Is there enough for a half barrel? Dunno…


Meanwhile, here’s the finished label for our first pinot, still to be printed, but we have 150 bottles waiting for them. As this wine will not be sold, the label doesn’t have the usual paraphenalia — 13.5% alcohol, etc — but they might be added to the 2009 label. At the moment, the 2008 is still too new in the bottles to be really drinkable: I ought to leave it alone for a few months, but it will be difficult to resist…