The pungent grip of truffle fever

ABBIE NAPIER
Last updated 14:32 28/06/2014
truffle
STACY SQUIRES/ Fairfax NZ

BLACK GOLD: Wayne Tewion has waited 18 years to get a proper harvest from his truffle farm. This year has seen truffles the size of peaches unearthed by truffle dogs on his Old West Coast Rd property.

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The anticipation is palpable as we head out on our truffle hunt.

It's quiet and calm under the rows of trees.

The winter sun peeks through the bare branches and throws weak morning light on the leaf litter. All eyes are on the ground.

Ace, the truffle hunting dog, is straining on his harness, keen to work, and keen for treats for a job well done.

In the stillness, you can almost smell it on the air - the earthy, pungent smell of ripe truffles, hidden just below the surface, waiting to be discovered. Buried treasure.

Makeshift flags are dotted all over the truffle grove - markers of previous truffle stashes and good spots to look. Some are nothing more than a bent piece of No.8 wire or a iceblock stick.

Wayne Tewnion has waited 18 years for this season to come. This year, he hopes, the years of hard work, manual labour and laborious research will pay off.

He is hoping for a big haul. The mother lode.

Nearly 20 years ago Wayne started working the soil of his future truffle farm, getting the balance just right. Truffles are discerning funghi and won't grow in anything less than perfect conditions: a soil PH of 7.9, the perfect amount of water and the right levels of every nutrient.

If anything is out of balance, they won't grow, or they will rot in the ground.

It's a science that has cost Tewnion an awful lot of money and even more time.

The 600 trees he planted in 1996 cost him about $30,000. The other costs are huge - balancing the soil, 18 years of pruning, mowing, maintaining and hoping.

For every element of science in truffle growing, there are equal parts good luck and mystery. It's a fledgling industry here in the grand scheme of things and much is still unknown.

What works for one truffle farmer may be disaster for his neighbour.

Discussing this year's upcoming season, it's almost as if Tewnion fears jinxing it with too much enthusiasm.

Truffle fever has led to disappointment in the past.

Dig them out of the ground too soon and they may never ripen. Leave it too long and they'll fade away or be stolen by kleptomaniacal rodents.

Tewnion is growing the coveted Black Perigord truffle which is selling for about $4000 per kilogram and is lusted after worldwide.

His 600-tree truffle grove has huge potential.

Truffle groves are rows of hazel and/or oak trees which have had their roots infected with truffle spores. Some growers choose to infect seedlings by growing them under existing truffle trees and others get them infected in a laboratory.

The process is closely guarded as each producer believes they have the perfect technique and the perfect mix of ingredients. Buying the right trees, properly infected, is essential. Otherwise, the 18 years of waiting could be all for nothing - no truffle spores, no truffles.

Out in the grove, Ace has a sniff of truffle to get the scent and is off like a shot. He's proven himself in a white truffle farm nearby, but the black truffle smell is different.

Within 20 seconds he's found two truffles the size of walnuts. Wayne is down on the ground in the blink of an eye, nose pressed close to the dirt, scraping the ground ever so gently.

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The ripe truffle smell is distinctive and if it's dug up too soon, it's no good.

They're carefully extracted, dusted off, and smell-checked for maturity. Once they're safely stashed in a paper towel, Ace is off again and turns up a handful of bigger truffles in quick succession.

A few minutes later, he hones in on a huge ripe truffle the size of a large peach. Jackpot.

At 208 grams, it will fetch around $800 and is a near-perfect specimen with a rich black body and bright white veins.

Less than 20 minutes with the truffle dog has unearthed about $1500 in ripe truffles, and that's barely scratching the surface. That bumper crop is looking more and more likely.

Walking along the rows, truffles are popping to the surface everywhere. It's a gold mine.

Tewnion already has about $5000 worth of truffles ready to sell on to local restaurants and they're clamouring for a nugget of the good stuff - the black diamond of French cuisine.

When the New Zealand market is exhausted, Tewnion can sell his truffles in Europe, where demand has long out-stripped supply. Right now, it's all about putting the markers out and perfecting the art of patiently waiting.

"It's a race now, between me and the rats."

- The Press

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