Te Puke couple, Colin and Maureen Binns, are breaking new ground, literally, at a time in life when many others are thinking about putting their feet up.
About 16 years ago they left the Hutt Valley for Maketu in the Bay of Plenty and ended up creating a successful truffière (truffle grove) on their lifestyle block at Paengaroa.
Now, in what would be retirement years for many, their boutique business is going from strength to strength.
They harvested their first truffles in 2015. Each year the crop has increased and the 2020 harvest was looking to be the best yet. Then Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand.
Covid-19 threat reversed
It was threatening to ruin their harvest, which is usually done in June and July.
Maureen discovered The Modern Forager, a website set up during the March lockdown by Mount Maunganui’s Melissa Woods as an online marketplace for Kiwis to buy direct from New Zealand growers, farmers and producers.
Through joining The Modern Forager, the Binns were discovered by Stacey Jones from Kitchen Takeover. Stacey and her chef visited and have used truffles at their Hunter Gatherer pop-up restaurant dinners during June and July.
The collaboration resulted in sell-out truffle tastings at the truffière that are combined with truffle hunts.
Background in environment protection
Maureen grew up in Lower Hutt and had an impressive involvement in environmental organisations and local politics over several decades.
Widowed in 1989, she had known Colin and his wife for years. At that time, Colin was working in Australia and planning to retire to a holiday home in Maketu in the Bay of Plenty. Then his wife became ill and died. Several years later he and Maureen became a couple and married.
Colin and Maureen moved to the Maketu house and looked for a piece of land. They found a lifestyle block, 16 km from Maketu, which had a basic house but no gardens.
With a QE II covenant on part of the property that was near a river it was immediately of interest to them. The opportunity to have their own 3.9 ha rewarewa forest was irresistible so they decided to move there.
Inspired by article left by previous owner
They bought the property and spent the next five years doing up the house and developing gardens but they still wanted more to do. The previous owner had left behind an article about truffles which intrigued the couple.
Maureen suffers from allergies so didn’t want to be involved in a horticultural project that involved sprays, such as kiwifruit or avocados.
I’m not a sheep, rather, I try things out and want to be a leader,” Maureen says.
So, they talked to the first person to grow truffles in New Zealand (in Gisborne) and visited a truffle farm at Waipara, north of Christchurch.
At Te Puke a paddock of half an acre was chosen, the grass killed off and 50 tonnes of lime ploughed in to raise the pH to a level suitable for growing truffles.
The couple ordered and planted 212 trees (oaks and hazelnuts) inoculated with truffle mycorrhizae (spores of Perigord truffles) and waited.
Would the conditions be ideal?
There was no guarantee of success – the truffles grow in only the right conditions. People still wonder what turns on the truffle switch.
However, the couple had created the correct conditions and truffles began to grow on the roots of the trees in a symbiotic relationship.
They bought an English Springer Spaniel puppy, Jed, and trained him to sniff out the truffles using pieces of ripe truffles as bait.
That was six years ago.
Now, when the dog indicates a truffle, Maureen carefully digs it up and Colin does the cleaning.
Each truffle is weighed and computer records are kept so they know which tree it comes from.
Looks similar to a ripe avocado
A ripe truffle has an outer layer that looks similar to the dark skin of a ripe avocado.
Few Kiwis, except those who have lived in or travelled through Europe, know much about truffles so Colin and Maureen introduced truffle hunts on their property.
Groups, usually of foodies, are treated to tea, coffee or juice with a platter of truffle shortbread and truffle butter made by Maureen.
She shares the Te Puke Truffles story before the group gather by the fence line to watch their dog indicate the presence of truffles, which are dug up and passed around.
More truffle dishes follow before visitors are given the opportunity to buy products made with the couple’s truffles.
The visits take three hours or more and not only do they gain the couple of new customers but people have also begun buying the truffle hunt experience as birthday gifts.
Kiwis keen to try new foods
Maureen says it is a good time to have a niche food business as Kiwis are keen to try new foods.
During her lifetime things have changed dramatically in what is available to eat in New Zealand such as the introduction of yoghurt and sour dough bread.
Maureen says the most fulfilling thing about their business is teaching others about truffles and how to use them.
Helping people who want to grow them, eat them and cook with them, working with something special and sharing it.
“And we meet some lovely people,” she adds.
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For more information:
Te Puke Truffles website