Appleby truffle is gourmet black gold
A black truffle the size of a tennis ball, grown in Nelson, is causing excitement.
"It's like having gold in the kitchen," says Boat Shed Cafe owner and chef Daniel Monopoli.
For Peter Burton and Rebecca Hamid, the 90-gram wonder gives them confidence that they will be in the business of producing the rare gourmet fungi.
They found the culinary treasure erupting out of the ground on their Appleby property, where they have 1200 oak and hazelnut trees inoculated with perigord black truffle spores.
Their find at the weekend follows the discovery last year of two 4g truffles.
"To go from finding two last year to the second one this year shows something is happening here; it is exciting," Mr Burton said.
"This is a very large truffle at 90 grams. If you are producing 40 or 50 grams in New Zealand, you're doing well."
Truffles are prized as a luxury gourmet treat, particularly in Europe, with an A-grade ripe black truffle selling for $3000 a kilogram. The 90g Appleby truffle would cost around $270.
Mr Burton said it was early days for truffieres - truffle farms - in New Zealand, with total production estimated at 50 to 70kg last year. In Nelson, there are understood to be six property owners hoping to produce truffles.
Sometimes it took more than 10 years before a truffle was found, and some New Zealand growers had waited 15 years without success, Mr Burton said. This was why discovering truffles two years running so soon had increased the couple's confidence.
Six years ago, they were considering what to grow on their 12-hectare property when Mr Burton watched a Country Calendar programme featuring Gisborne couple Alan and Lynley Hall, who were producing truffles. He thought it would be an interesting thing to do.
The couple asked Mr Hall to visit their property, and after soil tests, and knowing that others in the region were giving it a go, they bought 650 inoculated oak and hazelnut trees from him.
Mr Burton attributed their success so far to their attention to the trees, the soil biology and their environment, and nurturing them with an organically based truffle booster from Australia via an irrigation system.
In 2011, they started looking for truffles and were delighted to find the two 4g treasures. The truffles were over-ripe, so the couple put them in a freezer.
Mr Burton brought them, along with the larger, unripe truffle, to the Boat Shed Cafe, which he said he respected for its good food and use of local produce.
Chef Michael McMeeken said that when he worked in London, an old Italian would visit with truffles wrapped in a tablecloth for the chefs to select. "It is a rare thing to get in New Zealand. It's a relatively new industry."
He was keen to be able to use truffles again. "There is just something about the intoxicating aroma and flavour and beautiful texture."
The pungent aroma is sometimes described as earthy chocolate, and can fill a kitchen or restaurant. Its use should be minimal, said Mr McMeeken.
Yesterday he simply shaved it finely to go with a fried egg.
"Something like this is exciting." Mr Monopoli said. "We have three chefs here trained at Michelin star level, and generally chefs in New Zealand do not get the opportunity to get these things.
"The fact that it's grown just down the road is fabulous. It's about building relationships with local producers."
Mr Burton and Ms Hamid are doing that, and believe there is a ready market in Auckland and Christchurch, as well as one day looking further afield to Asia.
A truffle-seeking dog will be brought to their Appleby property every two weeks, and the couple are cautiously optimistic that he will sniff out more.