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Hunting for ‘nature’s MSG’ in North Canterbury

9 August 2017 

Did you know Canterbury is the only place in the country where four premium varieties of truffles or 'underground mushrooms' are grown? Well, word is getting out thanks to several passionate locals and foraging-related events.

The third annual Canterbury Truffle Festival, which wrapped up at the end of July, is fast-becoming a highlight on New Zealand foodies’ winter calendar.

Its organisers describe it as a food and wine celebration of the “mysterious, seductive and transformative underground fungal treats”, with several truffle growers, chefs, restaurants and top wineries on board.

It is designed to give everyone a chance to taste the gourmet item – from first-time truffle tasters to the aficionado, and also aims to celebrate “the coming of age” of the New Zealand truffle business. Highlights include truffle tasting at farmers’ markets and truffle hunts with growers and their dogs.

The festival’s sold-out Truffle Day Out event had more than 55 people hunting truffles in Waipara and Waikari, feasting, tasting wine and learning a few truffle tricks from local chef Jonny Schwass. Schwass is passionate about flavour and says that’s something truffles have in spades. “There are about 80 to 100 different aromas in a truffle. It’s all about that sensory hit – that really sort of funky smell.”

And if you think you’ve got your truffle hit sorted with truffle oil, you’re mistaken. “It’s like putting Brut 33 into your pasta. It’s a perfume basically. It’s not truffles and it’s not oil.”

Angela Clifford, of Tongue in Groove, says the Canterbury Truffle Festival is helping cement North Canterbury’s position as a forage and food destination. “It’s an example of the diversity of food and wine that can be grown in the region and how beautifully they can sit alongside each other. We all work together to support each other and tell the story of this amazing place.”

While truffles are also grown elsewhere in New Zealand, including in the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay, Canterbury is the only place where four premium varieties are grown: Périgord Black, Bianchetto, Burgundy and Winter Truffles. The region’s high pH, limestone-rich soils and sunshine hours allow truffles to thrive (they evolved in limestone-rich areas of Europe). There are more producers in North Canterbury than anywhere else in the country.

Gareth Renowden, of Limestone Hills, says this year's Canterbury Truffle Festival attracted record ticket sales. “Even though we had a very limited budget for promotion, [it drew people] from all over New Zealand – especially Auckland.”

Truffles explained

Truffles are the fruiting bodies of fungi that live in a symbiotic relationship with certain kinds of trees. Instead of sending mushroom caps up above the soil, they have evolved to become very aromatic in order to attract animals to eat them and spread their spores around.

Why so expensive?

Yes, truffles are expensive – a small one can cost between $60 and $70, but there is a reason. They are very hard to grow. Gavin and Anne Hulley, of Amuri Truffiere, planted their oak and hazelnut trees 20 years ago (in 1997) and got their first truffles in 2004. In 2016, they dug up a grand total of 16 kilograms from two hectares. It’s hard to tell when truffles are ready too, because once they’re dug up… they can’t go back in the ground.

Harvesting dates

Périgord Black, Bianchetto and Winter Truffles are harvested from June-September. Burgundy Truffles are harvested from January to July.

Other forage and food events

  • North Canterbury Wine & Food Festival is an independent, fete-like event set under oak trees in Glenmark Domain that celebrates the region’s wineries, food producers and restaurants.
  • Learn about permaculture farmers' daily lives with a North Canterbury Wild Food & Winery Tour, from hearing how they grow their own food at The Food Farm to foraging for wild delicacies and spending time amongst the vines.
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