Sunday, August 14, 2022

Funding for elusive black gold

Black truffles so good even the French are clamouring for them has prompted the Ministry for Primary Industries to fund workshops to help grow the number of truffièries in New Zealand. An Opotiki couple are now old hands at truffle growing and are working with MPI to get the word out. They spoke to Richard Rennie.

New Zealand truffle growing has a past clothed in a level of secrecy and rumour that Opotiki couple Annette Munday and Matiu Hudson are keen to dispel. 

Munday recounts how the initial efforts 20 years ago by (then) Crop and Food Research had their land as one of the first of 12 Périgord black truffle truffèries to be established with spores imported from France. 

The scientists figured that NZ could offer a realistic counter-season supply to the Northern Hemisphere.

“But along with the French-sourced spores came a bit of that culture of secrecy that accompanies truffle hunting in France. Over there, truffles grow wild and like a good fishing spot, people are loath to share details, that carried on a bit here when NZ wanted to have truffle farms,” she says.

The couple’s farm is one of about a dozen in NZ producing commercially viable quantities of the high value gourmet fungi that can retail for as much as $3 a gram or $3000/kg. 

But far from wanting to keep their success a secret, the couple approached MPI for funding to help support workshops around the region, tapping into growing interest from farmers, landowners and particularly iwi keen to utilise lower quality land in commercial enterprises.

Ohiwa Black Truffles has received $155,000 in funding over three years to share their knowledge, with funds coming through MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.

With strong tribal connections to the eastern Bay of Plenty Matiu has been instrumental in helping the first three workshops fill with interested parties from iwi groups as far afield as Tuwharetoa, around Taupō.

“They have 30,000ha of land they are looking to diversify on and truffles keep coming back to the top of the list.”

His own elders can recount visits from Crop and Food scientists more than two decades ago, keen to use tribal land for trial sites.

“But at the time I think everyone was quite sceptical about just how well they would go.”

Today, the couple’s truffière is regarded as the most productive of any in NZ and is one of the top globally, selling fresh to NZ chefs and (prior to covid) exporting orders delivered within 12 hours to Hong Kong restaurants. 

Dr Ian Hall, who was closely involved in setting up the couple’s truffière back in the late eighties, noted in his book Taming the Truffle the couple’s truffière’s productivity is matched by the quality of its Périgord black truffles, commanding a place in some of NZ and the world’s best restaurants. 

He describes it as one of the world’s most interesting and important truffières.

A pair of hands holding some black truffles.
At retail Périgord black truffles can fetch $3500 a kilo.

Truffles are a fruiting fungi regarded as the “diamond of the kitchen” by chefs, thanks to their deep, earthy aromatic scent that can be infused through a wide range of foods and dishes. 

Trees are hosts for the fungi spore, with oaks, hazelnut and even pine trees proving suitable as long as the soil beneath is kept highly alkaline. 

Wholly organic in production, the couple regularly apply lime to keep pH between 7.6-8.3.

The potential earning ability of truffles makes for some compelling maths for landowners wanting to utilise even small plots of otherwise unproductive, poorer quality land.

“A good truffière will generate as much as 1.5kg of truffle per tree. You can plant trees anywhere from four to 400 trees a hectare, depending on how you wish to manage that land,” Munday says.

“At as much as $3 a gram, even producing 200g-500g is pretty good.”

Set up costs per hectare can range from $35,000 to $70,000, but landowners have to be prepared to sit it out before the spores produce their magic, sometimes for several years.

The couple say the movie Pig, featuring an angst-ridden Nick Cage playing the role of a hermit ex-chef living in the woods with his truffle snuffling pig, is a relatively accurate portrayal of the secrecy and mystique truffles evoke in the Northern Hemisphere. 

However, it is more typical today to use dogs for truffle hunting, with pigs often refusing to release the prized fungi once finding it. 

The couple have tried training a Kunekune pig, but their efforts were thwarted thanks to the pig being deaf and extremely stubborn.

“If you ever visit a truffle growing region in France, you can often see a few old timers with some fingers missing from when their pig refused to let go when they tried to prise the truffle off them,” Munday says.

Somewhere in the hills near Opotiki there is also a retired pig dog that has made the move to the more genteel art of truffle hunting, earning his owner a respectable $150 an hour for his services.

Hudson says he is very optimistic about the prospects for growing NZ’s truffle volumes to put NZ on a more even footing with our Australian counterparts. 

They were fortunate to receive significant government support two decades ago,and have achieved critical mass since.

“At present we don’t have the volume. We can get one customer ringing seeking 50kg a week. NZ probably only produces 300kg a year at present and we simply cannot keep up with demand from the Northern Hemisphere.”

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