2014 truffle harvest newsletter #2

Welcome – somewhat later than planned – to the second Limestone Hills truffle update for 2014. A lot’s been happening. We’ve been deluged with rain – the wettest autumn since we moved to Waipara 17 years ago. Floods have eroded gullies, taken out a fence and washed out a track, but the sun is now out and the truffles are doing rather better than we expected six weeks ago when the Waipara River was roaring past at 250 cubic metres per second (it usually idles past us at a cumec or two). Here’s Rosie with our first Perigord black of the season, found at the end of June:

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The truffle hound has been on great form, especially when taking visitors out on truffle hunts. Rosie is always charming company, and has never yet sent any winter visitor away empty handed… Continue reading

Rosie on the radio (with truffles and nuts)

A couple of weeks ago, RNZ National’s Country Life programme – in the shape of reporter Cosmo Kentish-Barnes – called in at the Hills and accompanied Rosie on a truffle hunt. I did far too much talking, but Cosmo skilfully edited my ramblings into a semi-coherent narrative. And we found truffles. Listen by clicking on the button below, or on the Country Life page here. There are pictures too

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/clife/clife-20140425-2131-truffles_with_rosie-048.mp3″]

First footing

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I wasn’t expecting the 2014 truffle season to start on the first of January, but it did. We had some friends round for our traditional New Year’s Day lunch (ham with Cumberland sauce), and one or two said they’d like to see Rosie have a sniff round some trees. So I pocketed a few treats, hitched the excited little dog (did I mention she’ll do anything for a treat?) to her lead, and we headed out to the truffière. I was confident of being able to show the little group a few truffles poking their heads above the soil — I counted ten today — but Rosie went one better and found a lovely ripe 59g Burgundy truffle nestled well underground. Cue general excitement.

The truffle is not for sale. Some was used in truffle butter, served with yesterday’s crayfish supper, and more will be used in scrambled eggs for a weekend breakfast. I doubt there will be any left after that. But I do expect that we’ll have more ripe Burgundy truffle soon — and I have orders piling up from some of NZ’s top chefs. And a bag of butcher’s bones for a beagle…

Our bountiful Burgundy summer

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Monday, March 18th 2013: it’s raining — drizzling, to be exact — the first substantial rain since the end of January, and we’re out in the truffle trees with Paul Thompson from POD Gardening. He’s shooting a photo essay about Limestone Hills and truffles, so Rosie does the business and sniffs out a ripe Burgundy truffle of 533 grammes (that’s the lump under her nose). It’s the largest Burgundy truffle we’ve ever harvested, beating the 529 g monster we dug up at the end of January. It’s currently being enjoyed by the patrons of Saggio di Vino in Christchurch — as was that first one. Here’s a close up:


The scar at the top was caused by my efforts to excavate the monster, but shows the hazel/chocolate-coloured flesh rather nicely. There was plenty of nice aroma — a great truffle — and further evidence of just how productive this little patch of trees seems to be. So far this year we have harvested 4.446 kg of truffles. Some was over-ripe, and will be used as inoculum to produce more Burgundy-infected trees, but the best have been wonderful. This is no second-rate truffle: it’s an affordable ($1 per gramme, as opposed to $3/g for bianchetto and Perigord black) taste of the real thing. I was quite pleased…

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Paul’s full photo essay will appear at POD Gardening soon. Meanwhile, I will be out getting the other truffieres into shape for the harvest — mowing grass, felling weeds and trying to tread lightly to avoid damaging any crop. The bianchetto season looks promising — Rosie’s already found a couple of not quite ripe truffles — but I have my fingers crossed for the Perigord black. We’ve had a hot summer — good for melanosporum — and I’ve been providing plenty of water, but it will be a while before I get a feel for what might be going on. The heat has also been good for the pinot noir: there’s what looks like an excellent crop hanging in the vines, and Theo the winemaker tells me it’s tasting good. More fingers crossed…

Rosie’s big day at Bell Hill


Marcel and Sherwyn at the Bell Hill vineyard near Waikari have joined the ranks of NZ’s white truffle growers, thanks to the exploratory efforts of Rosie the truffle machine. I took her over the hill yesterday for a sniff round the trees — Bell Hill have Burgundy, bianchetto and Perigord black trees, as we do at Limestone Hills ((From the same nursery batches, too.)). I thought the bianchetto block looked promising, with lots of rabbit interest round the trees, and after a slow start Rosie got into her stride, finding a beautiful large bianchetto close to an oak. The look on Marcel’s face is not one I shall ever forget – big grin, bright eyes, extreme pleasure writ large. Unfortunately, a couple of minutes later I was laid low by a Menières episode ((Never pleasant, and I’m very grateful to Marcel and Sherwyn for getting me home safely.)), but Rosie kept going with Marcel, eventually finding around 300 grammes of good truffle (see above).

I’ll be back at Bell Hill later in the week to see if their Perigord black truffle trees have also started fruiting — but I’m not guaranteeing success. Having spoken to local growers, it looks as though this is not a good season for the Perigord black — at least in Canterbury. Last summer was cool — and perhaps too cool for a good harvest. At Limestone Hills we’re well down on last year, though the remarkable productivity of out little bianchetto block, and the excitement of finding our first Burgundy truffles, including one of 330 grammes, has helped to keep our spirits ((And sales.)) high.

That big Burgundy truffle gave us an excuse to do a bit of PR with top Christchurch chef Jonny Schwass. We set up a special three truffle dinner at Schwass in a Box — Jonny’s post-earthquake mini restaurant come private dining experience, located in the corner of a furniture showroom. Here’s the menu:

  • Bianchetto, Grilled Cheese & Whipped Lard
  • Egg Yolk, White Polenta, Reggiano & Perigord
  • Bianchetto & Smoked Lardo Risotto
  • All Three Tortellini
  • Quail, Parsnip & Burgundy
  • Pork, Cauliflower & Bianchetto
  • Potato & Perigord
  • Burgundy filled Brie de Meaux
  • White Chocolate & Bianchetto Zabaglione
  • Salted Caramel Fondant & Burgundy Ice Cream

It was an outstanding meal and a great evening. The Burgundy truffle ice-cream was magnificent, and the sous-vide potatoes with their truffley buttery unctuousness were superb, but every course was a triumph in its own way. We’re looking forward to repeating the exercise next year in Jonny’s new restaurant, and perhaps making it an annual event.

Our truffles have also been featuring on the menu at Amberley’s excellent Nor’wester Café for the last month, and I’ve spent a couple of Saturday mornings at the Waipara Valley farmers market selling truffle. Meanwhile, Jonny has just collected a consignment of bianchetto for a lunch he’s cooking for the editors of all NZ’s food magazines this week. Small, but perfectly formed — that’s our harvest. You could say the same for Limestone Hills in almost every way.

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.