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.

One week on: Christchurch earthquake Feb 2011

At 12-51pm today, New Zealand will stop to observe two minutes silence for the victims of last week’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch. The death toll is climbing remorselessly towards 200 as teams of urban search and rescue specialists from all over the world clamber over the ruins of what was once a beautiful city, recovering bodies from the rubble. The Renowden family escaped the worst: we’re all well, and our friends and colleagues seem to have escaped with their lives. But this tragedy will touch us all in many ways and for a very long time. Thanks to all the people who have emailed or made contact via Facebook or Twitter. Your kind thoughts were worth their weight in gold. If you can spare more, please consider making a donation to the Red Cross disaster relief fund.

[For more info and pictures, see my post last week at Hot Topic.]

Shocking amounts of shake, rowdy rattles and rather too much roll for comfort

4:35 am Saturday 4/9/10. Camille jumps out of bed yelling “earthquake”. The bedroom is swaying, and not in a good way. I grab my dressing gown and join her under the door frame. Biskits (cat) is faster than both of us and has taken up refuge on our bed. It’s a bit like being seasick — disorientating because everything’s moving. The house is creaking and flexing like ocean swells are running under us. It seems to last a very long time — 40 seconds, it’s said — and then noise stops and we start looking around. No damage at Limestone Hills — a few bits and bobs have got close to falling over — but it’s clear that someone has had a very bad time. Within a few minutes we’ve established that Tim and Emma in Christchurch are OK. Emma’s scared and under the living room table, and Tim’s picking his way through the damage at his girlfriend’s parent’s house in Halswell. Smashed crockery, TV on the floor, water slopping out of the spa pool and when the sun gets up enough to see, some very impressive cracks in the road outside.

Before 5am, the Geonet website is showing a 7.4 Richter earthquake about 30km west of Christchurch (near Darfield, 60-70 km from us), at a depth of 30km. Later this is revised to 7.1 and 10km depth. Radio NZ National (like BBC Radio 4 or NPR) is taking emails and tweets while they work out what’s happened. The presenter plays an oldie up to the news. Good Vibrations was not perhaps the best choice…

When there’s enough light to see, I take a walk around the farm. It’s a beautiful morning, crisp with a slight frost underfoot and a brilliant clear blue sky. No damage to be seen. Puppy cavorts happily at this early liberation from her sleeping quarters.

As the morning wears on, the #eqnz Twitter stream is reporting extensive damage in Christchurch. Pictures of broken roads, cars crushed by falling bricks start appearing. Doesn’t look good. But only two people reported seriously injured. 16 hours on from the quake, we still only have two people seriously injured but some amazing tales of escapes. There’s going to be a lot to rebuild in Christchurch, a lot of heartbreak, lost possessions and hard work, but as the aftershocks rumble on — a 6.0’s likely, so far we’ve had quite a few 5+ — there’s a real sense that today we dodged a bullet. And the faultline at Limestone Hills remains to move another day. Not soon, we hope.

[There’s a lot more I could write, about how Twitter got news flowing quickly, how the GNS web site is a superb resource, about the masterly RNZ National morning show once they got their act in gear, but now is not the time. Now is time for a toast to the health of everyone in Canterbury.]

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]

Cordane Precious Peggoty (Peg) 2003-10

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.

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Impatience #2

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…

Digging in the dirt

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).

[Peter Gabriel]

Michael’s big one keeps on growing (and other stories)


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…