Truffles have long been known as the diamond of the culinary world due to their intoxicating aroma, their scarcity, and the extreme prices they can command. They are notoriously difficult to cultivate. Traditionally associated with France and Northern Italy, truffles of several varieties are now cultivated in many places around the world, where the synthesis of soil, climate and tree species provide the right conditions for fruiting.
Aotearoa New Zealand is no exception, with over a dozen commercial truffle ‘farms’ operating throughout the country. The long lead time from establishment to crop means that a number of truffieres planted ten or even twenty years ago are only recently beginning to bear fruit. Last century, supply would depend on imports from the Northern hemisphere at great expense, whereas New Zealand now has its own winter truffle season that is recognised by the food industry. This is great news for chefs and truffle aficionados alike.
Glen File, Head Chef at Onslow Restaurant in Auckland remarks, ”Of all seasonal produce, truffle has to be one of the most demanded products that people go crazy for. It’s limited season, its flavour, and opulent status are some of the reasons people cannot get enough of truffles.”
Truffière owner Byron Arnold concurs. “People that like truffles are like drug addicts – what has been so interesting about us getting into the industry is finding these enthusiasts, and people who love that fresh smell of earthy truffle more than anything.”
Arnold is a recent inductee to the world of truffle farming. He and his partner Dianne live on and manage Matangi Truffles, just outside Hamilton, which they took over from Arnold’s parents just prior to the 2022 season.
“It was an opportunity to buy a low producing truffière, get our foot in the door to see what we can do.”
Establishing the truffière in 2007 involved planted trees inoculated with the fungus Tuber melanosporum, also known as Black Perigord Truffle. The trees grow and mature, and with luck the conditions are right for the fungus to fruit. Most of their work involves monitoring soil pH and pruning trees.
“We’re caretakers of the forest. We have a rule where I can’t cut a branch with any birds nest on. So we just look after that and hopefully let the fungus grow. What’s happening underground we don’t really know until we get the dogs in.
They are currently training a puppy to be their future truffle-hunter. Without the dogs, it is still possible to find ripe truffles using a little experience, a leaf-blower and a good sense of smell.
Truffle quality varies wildly. The top grade is rare, and a chef would probably want to show the specimen off to you before they put it on your plate. Below that are truffles that are ready to be shaved but are maybe not perfectly round or have a small amount of rot has to be cut out. Then there is truffle that is only really suitable to be shaved or diced for manufacturing uses, like cheeses or patés.
“Anything below that where there are spores but not really suitable for eating, we put that in the freezer and use that for innoculum. It’s put back into the ground to spread the spores like animals would traditionally do in the forest,” say Arnold.
“Last season we only harvested a couple of kg of table-ready truffle. Current produce is such a low level that it can’t be a day job replacement. So the aim is to have fun”
Part of that fun is building interest in truffles through hospitality and hunting. “We’ve got a B&B type lodge with two bedrooms where guests can stay, and eight out of ten guests we have are curious and enthusiastic about truffles.”
The changing climate is a factor, with uneven seasons and conditions.
“Last year in the Waikato, the only time we had a frost was October 5th when the berry farms lost massive amounts of their crops. It’s not proven but generally accepted that without the frosts you can’t have truffles and we had very little production. This year we found our first truffle on the third of may. Usually in New Zealand you are not finding truffles until June. It was perfect and looked great but a month too early.”
Chef File points to another successful truffière at the top of the South Island. “George’s Truffles in Riwaka has been our supplier for many years. They consistently provide quality truffles to Onslow.”
While truffle flavours and truffle-like products abound on deli shelves and specials boards, most are made from an artificial flavour derived from petroleum. Authentic truffles have a delicate aroma and are best used on neutral dishes or worked into butter.
“When I cook with truffle, my go-to is a simple pasta with a classic butter sauce that allows the truffle to shine.” Says File. “I just got back from three weeks in New York and Los Angeles where I bought back a cavatelli pasta machine after trying some amazing pasta over there. We are going to put a truffle cavatelli on the menu at Onslow which is a little different than your usual truffle tagliatelle which will be great.”
Arnold’s preference tends more towards the dessert spectrum. “I’m a bit of a sweet tooth and got introduced to truffle ice cream by our friends Colin and Maureen at Te Puke truffles.”
This hat tip to another grower shows that the traditional secrecy and hoarding of truffle knowledge has butted heads with classic Kiwi openness and community. “We are fortunate that the other truffle growers in the Waikato that we know are really open about the journey they are on and regularly updating about their challenges.”