Jax Lee, Kings Truffles, Caterbury

Jax Lee is the General Manager of Kings Truffles, leading the team and their truffle farm with over 6000 trees across North Canterbury. Originally founded in 2003 by her parents Bill and Susie, who are still present in the business, Jax came on a few years later help the family-run business deliver their premium grade truffles to customers all over the world.

While it’s not truffle season right now, the decadence of truffles felt fitting around Christmas time - not to mention their truffle butter is a perfect gift for any keen foodie - so we were delighted to catch up with Jax and learn more about Kings.

Tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to become the General Manager of Kings Truffles. It wasn’t something I planned to do, I didn’t even know what truffles were until our family got involved over 20 years ago.

I studied design and marketing — combine that with a childhood spent running around with sheep dogs on an isolated high-country farm where we were largely self-sufficient, and I suppose the jump to becoming General Manager for Kings Truffles isn’t that huge…

I started with working in the nursery aspect of the business while I was studying at uni, inoculating seedlings to produce truffle trees for sale. A few years on I also trained up a dog to locate truffles, doing this during weekends when we were just starting to find truffles. In 2013 when production was increasing and we were looking at developing more properties, I quit my marketing job, telling my now husband that I’d give it 3 years, and if I can’t make a go of it I’ll go back to an office job. I am still doing truffles so guess we made it work for us!

What sort of truffles do you grow, and can you give us a little insight into truffle farming in general?

The majority of trees we have are an evergreen oak called Quercus ilex, infected with Tuber melanopsorum. We also have a few hundred with Burgundy truffle on them, a late Summer/Autumn truffle that is great for the domestic market. There is a lot that happens behind the scenes with cultivating truffles, not just what people see at our truffle hunts.

We grow our own trees from acorns, infect the root and then plant out once we are happy with the level of infection. Once in the ground we need to keep on top of grass and weed growth, and when in the process of becoming BioGro certified that means a lot of mowing and weed whacking. With over 6000 trees of varying age we are continuously pruning, if not for form to keep the tree “forever young” which creates lots of sugars to feed the mycorrhiza. We also add a lot of truffle spore back into the ground to ensure we have a male and female spore needed for truffle fruiting, this is all done by hand and a lot of hole digging!

Winter time is when we start harvesting our truffles, so it is the dog's nose to the ground, often mine also, digging out our truffles one at a time by hand. A labour of love! Throw in irrigation repairs, dog training and all the other jobs that seem to appear we keep pretty busy.

Your dogs are critical team members. How long does it take to train a dog to hunt for truffles? And which of your pups has the keenest nose?

Without our dogs we wouldn’t be able to find the majority of our truffles. Our second dog really made us appreciate how critical they are to our whole operation, and how much more successful and efficient we can be when our dogs are working well.

Freddy is a Labrador, Collie, GSP cross who has the perfect combination of a good nose, food drive and an extreme need to please me (sometimes annoyingly so!) She is the mum to Snoop, Moose and Shaddy. We have also just added a new pup to the team to ensure we have some new blood coming along. Scruff is a Spaniel cross Kelpie and has already found a few truffles with very minimal training this past season. Time training the dogs can really vary with frequent but short sessions. It is a lot easier training now that we have proven truffle dogs that the young ones can learn from. Freddy has been our superstar now for 9 seasons, and is the dog you find on a lot of our branding. Scruff, our new pup, is going to be biting at her heels!

There are a number of different ways to cook with truffles, can you share your favourite way to prepare them?

I am all about keeping it simple when it comes to truffles, and letting them shine! My fave ways to enjoy truffle are shaved over a fried egg served on crusty bread with truffle butter, truffled mash, truffle pasta, a creamy cheese infused with truffle, and a steak with truffle butter and fresh truffle shaved on top. YUM!

Your truffle hunting events are a way to connect with the community and offer insight into the industry. Walk us through what we could expect at a Kings truffle hunt.

We love hosting our truffle hunts and have people from all over New Zealand, and even some from afar coming to them. We try to keep them as authentic as possible while still keeping people comfortable.

Susie looks after the food, Bill is in charge of parking (this can be critical after some of the extreme weather events we have had) and questions, and I am handling the dogs and chatting with all the guests. The events are based out of our modest Truffle Shed that has no power or water but we do have a compost loo and the ability to hide away from the weather if needed! The views are also priceless.

On arrival, guests are served a hot drink and the first truffle taster. We then have a short talk about truffles and what Kings Truffles are all about. Then it is out with dogs locating and harvesting truffle. There is plenty of time to get down and smell the truffles within the earth, which in my opinion is the best time of all, and we love hearing all the different descriptions from people. Then it is back to our truffle shed for a few more tasters and a small helping of truffle pasta. There is the chance to purchase truffle products as well as the fresh truffle. This can then be taken on to Black Estate Winery for a truffle lunch or to take home for their own creations.

Quick-fire Q’s

Name a scent that invokes a special memory for you?

There are a few but I think the strongest has to be fresh cut grass on a warm summer’s day.

A daily ritual you can’t live without?

Morning snuggles with my kids and a strong black coffee!

Favourite dish and where would you like to eat it?

Truffle cheese with a good red in front of the fire. Oh, and maybe a fresh summer fruit platter by a pool while someone mows the lawn…

What’s your favourite space in your home?

Again, I have a few depending on what mood I am in, but at the moment it is our sun seat with an amazing view. It’s in the centre of the house so you are always in the middle of some action and it is the perfect spot for an afternoon gin in the sun too.

Your most-loved Ashley & Co. scent?

I am quite sensitive to strong smells so a lot of my products are scent free. This is where I love Benchpress, Lotus Leaf and Lustre. It is enough to make your house smell fresh and clean without it overpowering you when you walk in the door. I am also in love with Better Balm, I am all for something that can be used for so many different things!