The truffle kerfuffle

17:00, Jul 24 2013
FINDING FUNGUS: Tracy Billingsley and her expert sniffer dog search for truffles.

On a frosty Sunday morning in Appleby recently, a group of people set out on a truffle hunt. They walked down long rows of young oak and hazelnut trees, stopping to bend down and press their noses to the cold dirt, hoping to smell buried treasure.

The grove is one of Nelson's handful of truffieres, and its owners, Peter Burton and Rebecca Hamid, were joined that morning by New Zealand Truffle Dogs' Andy and Tracy Billingsley, the Boat Shed Cafe's Michael McMeeken, and assorted children.

The hard ground recently yielded a 90-gram, tennis ball-sized specimen of perigord black truffle, after a year when Mr Burton and Ms Hamid found two smaller 4g ones.

They are hoping for more, and to take part in establishing a fledgling truffle industry here.

They walk down a row of five-year-old alternating oak and hazel trees to the base of one, where a stone tied with a paper ribbon marks a spot already identified as containing hopeful hints of truffle scent.

The big thing, Mrs Billingsley says, is avoiding truffle fever - which is to say, avoid acting like a child planting his or her first carrots and then digging them up to see how they're getting along underground.


"You can't take them out and put them on a windowsill to ripen. If they were ripe, they would be so pungent you could smell them just by standing near the roots."

The Billingsleys have their own truffle trees at their home in the Rai Valley, though they have yet to find anything among the roots of the oaks and hazels. Mrs Billingsley wears a silver acorn pendant around her neck - a Mother's Day present.

Ms Hamid says that when a waiter carries a truffle dish through a restaurant, you can smell the scent wafting past. The taste? "Indescribable" - but she gives it a go anyway. Like old socks and smelly cheese, but with flavours of hazelnut and wood, too.

Each searcher describes the smell of a ripe truffle in different ways: sweet, garlicky, but above all pungent. A ripe one is scaly black on the outside, and when cut open looks something like a brain, with fine white sterile lines of tissue running through it.

However, in the past two weeks the smell from the marked place in the grove has declined, and Ms Hamid is concerned that the truffle has gone off, saturated by too much moisture during the recent heavy rains.

Mrs Billingsley and Mr Burton get down on their hands and knees and take a long sniff at the dirt, and Mr Burton scratches at the ground with a hoofpick.

After some digging, it yields a plum-sized black lump - but sure enough, it's rotten. Mr Burton scrubs the truffle with an old toothbrush under the orchard tap, and discovers it's spongy to the touch, with a bad smell - nothing like the earthy chocolate or strong cheese scent of a good ripe truffle.

It's a disappointment. One day, these trees will form a canopy, providing dappled shade. But for now, Mrs Billingsley suggests preventing the worst of the rain from soaking into the ground by covering the truffle spots with pots and pans.

However, they find another truffle a few rows over, and Mr Burton gently scrapes away the dirt from the top, leaving it in the ground and slicing off a tiny bit to examine its insides. It's not quite ready.

"You want it as black as you can get it inside," Mrs Billingsley advises. "Another week or two will let it darken a bit."

Heading up another row, we come across a few truffles on the surface of the soil. Rabbits have dug up these white truffles, or bianchetti, leaving them to rot in the open. Mice and rats are also a problem - Mrs Billingsley has uncovered rodent dens during her searches, with half-eaten or dehydrated truffles inside.

The Billingsleys have their three truffle hunters in cages in their station wagon. Later that morning, they open the boot and field spaniels Ozzy and Brie and spaniel cross Pippa burst out into the cold morning.

Mr and Mrs Billingsley each take a dog and walk them up the rows of trees, giving them a treat when they find something. Ozzy takes off occasionally, darting after a fantail or rubbing himself ecstatically on the long grass.

They are the only commercial truffle dogs in New Zealand, and Mrs Billingsley says they're up to their ears in work.

Ideally, the dogs should be out hunting for truffles every two weeks when the precious fungi are in season. Mrs Billingsley blames the slow growth of the New Zealand truffle industry on the fact that there aren't enough well-trained dogs to be searching regularly.

There are various schools of thought on how to grow the best truffle, Mr Burton says as we walk along, and he compares the cultivation process to growing tomatoes either in a hothouse or outdoors.

Is it best to recreate the harsh conditions of Europe? Dehydrate the truffles and leave them to their own devices to develop among natural leaf litter and soil built up over millions of years? Or is it better to farm them and provide exactly what they should need for ideal growing conditions?

The Kiwi truffle industry is young, with total annual production estimated at 50 to 70 kilograms. But it's potentially lucrative, with truffle tree nursery Canterbury Truffles reporting that the highest price ever paid for a locally grown perigord black truffle was about NZ$9000 a kg. The price usually ranges between $3000 and $3500 a kg, making it the most valuable fungus in the world.

New Zealand truffle farming grew largely from the efforts of Hawke's Bay couple Alan and Lynley Hall.

Mr Hall's mycologist brother, Dr Ian Hall, took a special interest in edible mushrooms and fungi, leading him to develop the technology to successfully produce truffles in New Zealand in the late 1990s.

The Halls' was the first truffiere in the southern hemisphere to produce the perigord black truffle, Tuber melanosporum.

Mr Burton saw the Halls on the television show Country Calendar, and decided to give truffle growing a go on an empty block of land. He and Ms Hamid bought 650 truffle-infected trees from the Halls and hoped for the best, irrigating them with an organic truffle booster from Australia.

He knows of one couple who have been waiting 10 years for a find. Another couple have waited 15 years.

The science of truffle growing is not fully understood. A truffle is a type of mushroom that never pushes its top above the soil to release its spores to the wind. Turning a spore into a truffle underground is a particular natural alchemy involving water, soil, the fungus, the tree and the climate.

Truffles were a natural phenomenon until French peasant farmer Joseph Talon discovered a way to farm them in the mid-19th century.

He sowed acorns at the bottom of truffle-producing oak trees, and the mycorrhiza fungus infected the roots of the seedlings, which were transplanted. This meant truffle trees could be grown all over France.

Though less romantic than a chilly autumn walk through ancient European forests, the science of the enigmatic truffle breaks down into a combination of soil biology, weather, the tree and the spores.

Truffles are grown in New Zealand from Mid-Canterbury to the Bay of Plenty. They have a symbiotic relationship with the hazel and oak trees upon whose microscopic root hairs they form.

The fungus helps the tree extract nutrients from the ground, and the tree gives the truffle carbohydrates, which help it grow.

The truffle's growth cannot be forced, so traditional gatherers never knew when or where they would turn up. Enter the pigs.

Truffles evolved to be eaten, and after the first frosts, a truffle starts to release its first scent, attracting the animals that dig them up, scoff them and then distribute the spores around the forest in their dung - the only way truffles can spread.

It's a natural animal-fungus interdependence that is absent in New Zealand, with its dearth of indigenous mammals. So truffiere owners use trained dogs, whose sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than ours, to sniff the ground and let their handler know when they detect the characteristic odour of a truffle.

Some have trained their dogs themselves, but the Billingsleys are the only commercial truffle dog operators in the country.

Later that day, they do find a truffle under an oak - a beautiful 128g specimen of perigord that is passed on to Mr McMeeken.

He recalls that when he worked in London, an old Italian man would visit the restaurant to sell his truffles, which were wrapped in a tablecloth.

Chefs coming home from Europe and the United States who have cooked with truffles are likely to want to try the New Zealand version, he says. The fungus doesn't need much preparation - just shave it on top of good, fresh food.

Ms Hamid and Mr Burton intend to develop a truffle relationship with the Boat Shed - a sort of truffle degustation list for interested Nelsonians.

"We eat there a lot, and we like the way they use local food, and we think they've got a very good wine selection to go with the food," Ms Hamid says. "They cook simple, fresh food; it's not too fancy.

"We only really wanted to have one restaurant in Nelson that we supply, and if we can start supplying past them, we'll go to Wellington and look at other options."

Mr McMeeken first cooked with truffles in the US in 2003, and is excited to have the opportunity to use them again in Nelson.

They've been on the Boat Shed's menu in two ways when available - as a supplement to a beef dish, and as an appetiser in the form of mushroom and truffle bruschetta.

At $7.50, the latter is an affordable entry point for those curious about the renowned, if acquired, taste - without, as Mr McMeeken puts it, getting "punched in the face" by its notable strong flavour.

He says the restaurant has received quite a few inquiries following publicity about the locally grown truffles, and he believes the industry can only become stronger.

"It's similar in a way to where Brightwater saffron was at . . . for a while, not many people here knew how to use it, but now they are beginning to understand it."

Ms Hamid and Mr Burton also have a contact in the food distribution business in Auckland who is keen to supply some unfulfilled markets there.

On a Saturday night in June, six guests dined on a chef's choice selection of several small dishes: bruschetta with sliced truffle; prosciutto and squid; fettucine with grated truffle; vegetable broth with truffle-infused barley and more truffle grated into it; slices of pan-fried snapper; and then beef, medium rare with shavings of truffle on top, and a soft fried egg.

By all accounts, it was a very good meal - and there was even a bit of truffle left over.