Colin and Maureen Binns met nearly two decades ago, both widowed and living and working in the Wellington area.
Their journey together took them to the Bay of Plenty where they have established a new life for themselves and have taken on the challenge of growing Black Perigord truffles, a “magical and mystical” fungus that is much sought after in the gastronomic world.
Truffles are edible spores that grow on an underground fungus from the Tuberaceae
family. Traditionally in France and Italy, these elusive delicacies were hunted for by female pigs whose refined sense of smell can sniff out the androstenol in truffles, a hormone found in male pig saliva.
Nowadays dogs are trained to find them.
Truffles are now cultivated all over the world, including New Zealand. Their very short shelf life, limited harvesting season and scarcity of growers means they command high prices.
Colin first mooted the idea of moving to the Bay of Plenty as he had a house in Maketu and fancied a slower pace of life by the sea.
“I asked Maureen to come with me and she said yes, and the rest is history,” says Colin.
“However, after a couple of years, we’d got that property into shape and there was nothing left to do, so we wanted another project that let us use our love of growing and planting.”
Their search led them to a 6.9-hectare property at Paengaroa near Te Puke. It had enough cultivatable flat land to look at a new venture and a huge selling point was 3.9 hectares of QEII covenanted bush, with riparian rights to a pristine river winding through the property.
“I’m a keen conservationist and have been involved with Forest and Bird NZ projects for many years, so to have the custodianship of this land was very special to me,” says Maureen.
The couple considered lots of options that would work on only three hectares, including kiwi and avocados (but they need a lot of spraying),and ginkgos.
“We settled on truffles for several reasons,” says Colin.
Truffles grow around the roots of oak and hazelnut trees, both of which grow in New Zealand’s climate. The soil just needs lime added to create the perfect pH of 7.6 or higher for truffle growing. The fairly low maintenance venture has a two-month harvesting season in June/July and the truffles are in huge demand, commanding high prices.
“The downside is that they take five years to establish and each season you have no control over how many truffles grow,” says Colin.
During the wait, Maureen and Colin carried out considerable work on the property. They targeted the persistent Californian thistle, brought sheep and chickens onto the land, planted beautiful gardens, and improved and maintained their covenanted bush.
They kept a close eye on their truffière, as the 212 oak and hazel trees grew and hopefully truffles were forming around their roots. Colin found their first truffle in 2015.
Colin and Maureen play to each other’s strengths to manage their lifestyle business.
“I take the lead with the care of the land and stock, and Maureen takes the lead with organisation,” says Colin.
Maureen takes bookings for their truffle hunt experience and lunches where they showcase what truffles are, how they are harvested and what products can be made from them.
“We don’t want truffles to be a mystery to people, we want to share how wonderful they are,” says Maureen.
Border collie Jed is an experienced truffle hunting dog which can smell truffles 20 to 30 metres away.
He paws the ground when he finds one and is rewarded with a treat. Maureen kneels down and gently scrapes away soil to find the truffles and harvest them without damaging them.
Young Sam the spoodle is still in training but is enthusiastic about hunting for truffles.
The weight of each truffle, the tree it was under and the dog who found it, are recorded for every truffle and entered into computer records. Once washed, the truffles are speedily couriered, or hand delivered to eagerly waiting, mainly local chefs who often can have them on the menu that night.
“I love experimenting in the kitchen with recipes for truffle treats and products,” says Maureen.
Truffle ice cream, butter, salt, cheesecake, and truffled olive oil are some of her products and she enjoys collaborating with other artisan food makers to source her ingredients.
The pair have worked with a Wellington brewery over the past five years on a range of truffle infused beers and are very excited about the continuation of that project.
Colin and Maureen acknowledge that the time is coming when they will need to hand on the custodianship of their special piece of land to someone younger who will share their passion to preserve it.