Truffle farm lure for high-end land buyers

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Te Arai Estate, an hour north of Auckland, has New Zealand's largest truffle farm. Photo / Mark Carter.
Te Arai Estate, an hour north of Auckland, has New Zealand's largest truffle farm. Photo / Mark Carter.

A private country estate north of Auckland is being pitched at potential buyers with a unique selling point - it boasts New Zealand's largest truffle plantation.

Te Arai Estate is a 500-acre farm owned by high-profile developer John Sax, who is in the final stages of gaining council approval to start selling 25 lots.

Positioned on a ridgeline overlooking Auckland's stunning north-east coast, the estate features more than 9300 trees inoculated with French black truffles, otherwise known as Perigord truffles.

The lots being sold will not have truffle trees on them but will be set among the plantation, which covers 17 hectares.

Truffles are a type of fungus which grow on and around the roots of certain types of trees which have been inoculated with the spores.

They are regarded as 'white gold' in the culinary world and currently fetch a price upwards of $3000 per kilo.

James Sax, 26, who is leading the development on behalf of his father, said his family inherited the trees when they bought the land three years ago.

At the time, the 10-year-old oak and hazel trees were just hitting their fruit-bearing age.

"Last year wasn't great for us with all the rain but we have been producing for two years now," Sax said.

Each tree was capable of producing up to 1.5 kg of truffles but variables like soil temperature and pH level determined the harvest success, he said.

Any truffles harvested so far had appeared exclusively on the menu at Treetops Lodge & Estate, a luxury resort in Rotorua which is also owned by Sax senior.

"In the future we'll hopefully be marketing to top Auckland restaurants and five years down the track we might be able to start looking overseas," James Sax said.

The family has bought two English Springer Spaniels, traditionally used for game hunting, which were trained to sniff out the strong-smelling truffles and dig them up.

An Australian truffle expert was also flown in every three months to inspect the trees and give advice.

Although Te Arai Estate's main money-spinner would be the lots - which will range from five to 50 acres and price between $300,000 and $600,000 - the truffle farm could prove lucrative in its own right.

While Sax expected a harvest of about 10 to 15 kilos this year, the yield should increase with each season, he said.

"Once they've started fruiting they keep producing more in that same place. It goes up exponentially."

The truffle farm was also "a big marketing point" for the $20 million to $30 million development, Sax said.

Owners would enjoy the prestige of being surrounded by the truffle plantation and would be able to take part in yearly truffle hunts.

"We're planning on doing a truffle weekend for all the owners. And we'll also shout them a night at Treetops where they'll be eating what they've found."

If buyers wanted to grow their own trees, there would be "on-site truffle management services available".

Te Arai Estate is being marketed as a high-end development "set in secluded native bush coupled with breathtaking ocean views."

Truffles are harvested between May and July each year which meant the annual hunt was about to kick off, Sax said.

"As a family, we've fallen in love with it," he said.

"You're out there with the dogs and your lunch all day, it's great fun."

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