24 July, Puketapu By Ian Thomas
Few foods hold the mystique of the elusive truffle. It is the subject of story-telling dating back at least three thousand years. My sense of awe is a re-echo of multiple re-echos of successful truffle hunts throughout history.
Our hunt begins as we meet Wendy and her dog named Bear. It’s a cliche of a sunny Hawke’s Bay winter’s day out at Sacre Monte Truffles, Puketapu. I’m pleased to go along with local chefs to listen, learn, smell, and taste. Wendy perches on the tailgate of her ute parked at the gate to the Truffiere and tells the tale of how it all began for her and husband Kees. They planted approximately 1800 oak and hazel trees in 1995. A substantial upfront investment of $50 per tree prefaced the ongoing investment of time and care. The roots of the saplings having been inoculated with the spores of black truffle. Leap forward twenty years and, as if by magic, they herald the discovery of their first truffle. Wendy describes the intervening twenty years during which the couple managed soil pH, micronutrients, and grass growth whilst concurrently researching information, mainly from France, in order to create conditions favourable to truffle fruiting. Her story-telling is eloquent and her story engrossing. Who plants and tends a crop for twenty fruitless years I wonder? Who researches information, often contradictory information, from across the globe in the hope of harvesting a fruit that the majority of the local population have never eaten? Who recognises that intuition and feeling for the land are vital cogs in the wheel? There is magic afoot. Wendy and Kees are a special breed of artisan grower. They give so much to the soil and will take so little. Wendy’s passion shines through her eyes and everything she says.
We break from the introduction and walk through the very expensive wooded area. Bear, the dog, seems happy to tag along displaying a relaxed attitude towards his task ahead. He’s in it for the treats. The ground is soft. Kept that way deliberately for the roots and fruits beneath. At the command Bear wanders a short meandering path. He stops, drags a mark in the ground with his paw, then waits assertively for payment for a service rendered. Bear has identified the location of a truffle. Not just any truffle, however, but a ripe truffle. He’s trained to ignore the immature ones. Wendy takes over, she scrapes at the earth with her hand, gathering and smelling small amounts of soil in order to pinpoint the fruit. We are invited to ‘dig in’ and we pick up the scent. As Wendy unearths a fine 180g black winter truffle a special memory is added to my food experiences.
Twenty eight years ago I sat at a table of a restaurant in Tuscany. The waiter grated fresh white truffle over turkey breast in a rich wine, garlic, and cream sauce. As he did this the heat of the dish released the aromas of truffle. A special memory. I love the flavour and have eaten it regularly since both fresh and infused in butter and oil.
Bear goes to work again and discovers three more truffles without much fuss. Bear keeps careful tabs on his reward. Quite rightly reminding Wendy that she hasn’t paid for the last find.
The second truffle unearthed is the black Perigord variety. It has five times the market value of the winter black yet similar flavour and appearance We head back to the ute with our haul. Wendy cleans the truffle, keen to get us to sample the two different varieties.
The flavour not only differs from variety to variety but also from truffle to truffle, intense and musky. Part fungi, certainly. Considering its sought-after flavour and the scarcity of the product the price comes as no great surprise. Between 60 cents to $3 per gramme depending on variety.
Wendy moves the story into the marketing and selling. It’s still early days. They are pioneers. During the season, which runs from June to August, ripe truffles are harvested and sold. As Wendy describes the process of selling, her meticulous attention to detail is evident. Cleaning truffles and taking them to chefs in their kitchen. Slicing a sample for tasting then weighing the chosen fruit at the moment of the sale. Deal done.
The tour is over. Ninety minutes passing very quickly as we lost ourselves in the woods searching for hidden treasures. I’m excited by the pioneering story, the embodiment of Kiwi ingenuity. I’m delighted to have rekindled a very special food memory. Amazed to have seen truffles gathered. The group of chefs is enthused. Minds are further opened. Creative juices flowing as they give thought to how they can create dishes and events around our local truffles. My expectations were high, or so I thought. As it turned out my expectations fell hopelessly short of reality. I had expected to be impressed by a dog with supernatural talents, and I was, but for Wendy and Kees dog training had been one of the easier elements of the operation. The hard part, and this is what has so hugely exceeded my knowledge and expectations, has been the husbandry required to create the right conditions for truffles to grow. A fascinating story, so well told. We have come very close to nature on this tour. We have inhaled the scent of one of the most prized food wonders of the world. We’ve learned that nature can be encouraged to do our bidding but not commanded. Wendy and Kees have coaxed the earth into production over a twenty year courtship. The tour connects us with a special place, and special people in our backyard. It’s uplifting, inspiring, thought-provoking, and reassuring. The truffle is well honored by Sacre Monte.
The couple have plans to introduce the product to more chefs, hence today’s hunt, and to consumers. Truffle hunts are available every Saturday through to 25th August. Tickets through Eventfinda.
So much to say on truffles – here’s some info links: