Digging up gold in Te Puke

Maureen and Colin Binns with their truffle hunting English springer spaniel Jed. Photo: John Borren.

With lockdown upon them, Maureen and Colin Binns thought they would have no market for the hundreds of truffles ripening in their Te Puke truffiere.

“We had a lot of truffles last year and this year it looked as though we would have three to four times more truffles than last year. Enjoying our best growing year for truffles and potentially having no market due to COVID – I was really quite worried,” says Maureen. “Were we even going to be able to sell any truffles at all?”

Fortunately three things happened. The easing of the COVID restrictions plus word-of-mouth helped, but then Maureen discovered the Modern Forager website, set up by Mount Maunganui’s Melissa Woods.

“Stacey Jones from Kitchen Takeover found us on Modern Forager and visited us with her chef.”

The meeting and ensuing collaboration resulted in sell-out truffle tastings at the truffiere.

“Stacey used our truffles at their Hunter Gatherer pop-up restaurant dinners. I went to the first dinner, spoke about truffles and people have been coming back to me ever since.”

At the pop-up restaurant events, Maureen and Colin take guests truffle hunting for the diamond of gastronomy with their English springer spaniel Jed, while Kitchen Takeover head chef Rob Forsman conjures up delectable truffle delights for a goodie bag.

Maureen sees herself as a teacher-librarian, rather than a marketer.

"I like helping people learn first of all, that there are truffles growing in New Zealand. If you’ve got a truffle, what do you do with it? I’m trying new things all the time.”

The Modern Forager website, set up during lockdown, is an online marketplace for Kiwis to buy direct from New Zealand growers, farmers and producers and required photos and a website in order for the Binns’ truffiere to be listed. Maureen quickly completed the website she’d started:

Immediately she found people started contacting her.

“Things happened, it’s a wonderful story of community,” she says about the collaboration with Modern Forager and Kitchen Takeover.

For visitors on a truffle hunt, she likes to give people a taste of her truffle shortbread, truffle butter, truffled brie – “that’s brie with lots of truffle in it”, as well as truffled scrambled eggs, truffle salt, and truffle macadamia nuts.

Back in 2008, Colin ploughed 50 tonne of lime into a half-hectare paddock on their lifestyle block, helping pitch the right pH. Perigord black truffles require high soil pH – a minimum 7.8 – whereas bianchetto fruit at lower soil pH, between 6.5 and 7.3.

Once the soil was prepared, they planted the trees – half of them oak and the rest hazelnut. The truffle fungus explores the soil for water and mineral nutrients, which it passes along to the tree. In exchange, the tree provides sugars produced through photosynthesis to the fungus. This interdependence between the tree and the fungus is subtle and fragile.

This year is their sixth harvest.

“The truffles start growing around November or December when the tree wants something. The truffle can give something to the tree and the tree can give something to the truffle,” says Maureen.

“The truffle grows on the tree root until about April and can vary between the size of a walnut and 500 grams of butter.  When we started getting ripe truffles in late May we put the dog through and although there were hundreds of truffles, he only indicates when he smells a ripe truffle.”

The advantage of having Jed the English springer spaniel, rather than a truffle pig, is that he’s not interested in eating the truffles once he’s found them.

Maureen says Colin has a theory about why women in particular seem keen on coming to the truffle experiences.

“Women love the aroma of truffles. When we've got people here, it’s the women who keep coming over, picking up the truffle and sniffing it. Colin puts it down to the fact that traditionally in France, you had truffles in the ground and they exude a sort of a sweaty smell like a boar who knows that the sows are on heat. The sows in the wild forest come and find the truffles, dig them up and eat them. Then the truffles re-spore through the sows depositing their faeces all over the forest. So Colin reckons that’s why women like the truffles aroma.  

“I'm not sure that I go along completely with that.”

The experiences with Kitchen Takeover have been a sold out success with more planned, but Colin and Maureen also enjoy providing a truffle experience to smaller groups, tailoring tours to suit people’s needs, particularly for those who may have mobility issues.

On their lifestyle block they have also put in olive trees, farm sheep in other paddocks, and have developed small orchards. Growing there are grapes, passionfruit, macadamia nuts, almonds, persimmons, limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, mandarins, cherries, nashis, pears, peaches, feijoas, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, walnuts, tamarillos, avocados, plums and apples.

“There are a lot of truffle growers in the Bay of Plenty,” says Colin. “And we belong to the New Zealand Truffle Association. There are about 100 members in New Zealand.”

They didn’t know back in 2008 if their truffiere was going to be successful or not.

“To be honest, I didn't mind too much because you know, when you're doing an experiment and you're living a fantastic life, for me it doesn't actually matter too much about what is success,” says Maureen. “But success for Colin is having all our trees producing, which is a pretty rare and wonderful thing.”

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