Jax Lee-May, general manager at King Truffles, holds a degree in Design and a post grad in Marketing, which she admits helps with sales but doesn’t exactly scream out truffle farmer.
“I had done several holiday stints working in the truffle nursery while I was studying, producing truffle tree seedlings for other growers. But it was when I got back from my OE and trained up a dog for locating truffles for our first harvest season that I became hooked,” Lee-May explained.
“With life skills learnt from growing up on a high-country farm, running around with a team of sheep dogs and a lifelong love of growing things, I found myself taking over the day-to-day running’s of everything at Kings Truffles.”
Kings Truffles is a family owned and operated business based in North Canterbury. Founded by Bill Lee in 2003 off the back of a passion that led him to research and train with some of the world's best in Europe and Australia. Joined by Jax, his daughter in 2006 and with the support of an enthusiastic board of Directors, the team constantly seek to innovate and explore the possibilities of supplying stunning fresh Black Truffle to the New Zealand market, and soon beyond.
King Truffles has five different sites, with trees all at different stages, located around Waipara, North Canterbury. It has an ideal weather pattern for growing black truffles that are full of taste and aroma. Long hot growing seasons with the odd decent rainfall (or irrigation which is usually King Truffles’ case), teamed with the dry frosty winters are what the team prefer, and most seasons they get it.
“We are also very fortunate that many of our sites have a high pH with available calcium and a very friable, well aerated soil which is also ideal for successfully growing quality black truffle.
“It isn’t just the land and climate that is special here though, it is the people also. Well known for its quality wines, there are also many other entrepreneurial growers in the area. It is very easy to draw inspiration on what is being done and I love the fact that many are family businesses that have made the shift to growing organically.”
Lee-May had not actually tried truffles before she got hooked on the idea of being a truffle farmer. It was the opportunity to be able to work on the land, with her family and dogs, in an area that she loves that drew her to the work.
“It just so happens that I also (luckily) love truffle! Its ability to make a simple dish shine, the ultimate Unami, all while bringing people together makes it the ideal winter treat for me.”
Lee-May explained that when the company first started producing truffles many people didn’t even realise there was truffle being grown in New Zealand, so King Truffles added a Truffle Hunt experience to their offering.
“What started as a marketing purpose to teach people that truffle wasn’t just being grown here, but very successfully and with great quality, has turned into a large part of our season and storytelling. It is also an invaluable way to receive feedback, meet people who are passionate about New Zealand food and a reminder of how fortunate we are to be doing what we do.
“Starting in the morning with a hot drink and a sweet truffle treat, we talk about Kings Truffles, growing, truffles and dogs. Then it is onto the hunt and getting people down on their hands and knees smelling the truffle in the ground. After a good hunt we head back to our little shed for a taster of fresh pasta served with truffle butter and fresh shavings. There is always a chance to purchase some of the mornings finds, and if you are lucky enough to have booked in for a truffle lunch at Black Estate, they are happy to shave your truffle directly on!”
King Truffles’ core product is fresh black truffle during the months of June - August.
“We sell this direct to chefs all over New Zealand as well as via our website to home cooks. We aim to harvest and package withing 48hours, if not the same day as harvest, and then send on overnight courier. With truffle that hasn’t sold immediately we make a truffle butter with 10 percent fresh truffle. We also have our truffle tours, site consultations for potential growers and truffle tree seedlings.”
Being a family business, sustainability is something that is very important to King Truffles. The company has been chemical-free at its producing truffiere for over three years, with the next step getting certified with BioGro and making the shift to chemical-free on its other properties. Sustainability is also incorporated into all aspects of the day-to-day running of the company; for example, having two of the farms, family homes and processing kitchen all powered by solar.
Lee-May explained that most people don’t know that there is an actual science behind why truffles are so alluring to so many people.
“Truffles release pheromones, making them deliciously desirable to many, but not all! This is also what attracts truffle-hunting animals such as pigs and dogs also. It is one of my favourite reactions when holding a truffle hunt and watching people smell a fresh truffle for the first time, there is definitely a split between the lovers and haters.”