Last winter I was invited by Black Estate to travel down to their North Canterbury idyll and experience their annual Truffle Lunch, which began with a truffle hunt with Jax Lee of King’s Truffles, on their farm in the pretty limestone hills close Waipara.
Wandering among the orchard of evergreen oaks and hazelnuts, Jax’s number one truffle dog Freddy sniffed out the goods; with remarkable accuracy she’d gently scratch the piece of earth hiding the truffle, allowing Jax to get in, give the soil a good sniff to confirm the truffle’s presence, and gently scrape away at the earth to reveal the black gold. The truffles we dug up were Perigord; their classic sweet, earthy aroma is insanely strong when they’re first pulled from the ground, covered in soil.
At Black Estate’s Netherwood Vineyard, foraging expert Melany Wright (on Instagram @foragedfare ),who also works the Black Estate kitchen, gave a quick foraging tour. Being a certified organic vineyard, the bounty of ‘weeds’ to be found are free of chemical sprays here, and with Mel’s sharp eye we soon had a basket full to take back to the restaurant, where they were made into the beautiful salad we ate at lunch.
Black Estate have three sites and their restaurant (now complete with adjoining accommodation) is situated on the Home vineyard, looking out across the vines and beyond to the foothills and then snow-capped Southern Alps proper. Lunch was a long, relaxed, fun affair, with Black Estate owner and winemaker Nicolas Brown talking us through each course and wine match. To Nicolas, organic practices just make sense – to him it’s about letting the story of each site work its way through the growing and winemaking process to flourish in the glass, so that every Black Estate wine speaks of the land that cradled it.
Chef Jacob Stanley has a lightness of touch that made six truffle-rich courses a sheer delight, rather than an overpowering experience.
I’m generally cynical when presented with dishes that fuse flavours wide apart on the spectrum – but Jacob’s dessert of truffle panacotta, which came topped with a truffle-flecked Home Pinot Noir jelly, was quite simply sublime. The best sweet(ish) thing I’d enjoyed in a long time.
Black Estate’s truffle hunt and lunch is part of the annual North Canterbury Truffle Festival, that takes place in the height of the region’s truffle season in July and August. It books out quickly – and I can see why. It’s a special occasion to treasure: a day of learning, of getting out in the elements a bit, of enjoying fantastic food and wine that has been coaxed, ever-so-gently from the surrounding soils of the Waipara Valley.