I recently did a feature on Truffle hunting for the Independent, thought I would share it with you here and throw in some of my own pictures. My Guide for all things Truffles was Melissa Waddingham- if you want to get your mutt transformed into a Truffle hound or even head to the woods for a spot of 'shrooming- contact her here.
My first ever encounter with a truffle occurred age six, somewhere in the Jura Mountains of France. My brother and I had pooled our pocket money to buy my father a birthday present. We settled upon a small Périgord truffle in oil, sealed in a shot glass. I had no idea what a truffle was, but understood this: they weren't cheap. Quite why we had paid 25 francs for something that resembled an oversized, warty bogey in a jam jar was beyond our comprehension, but my mother assured us it was worth it for the exquisite taste, a flavour I would have to wait quite a few years to see if it really was worth it's weight in gold.
Now, while looking for mushrooms above ground can be difficult even when you're bang in the middle of a good cep season, trying to root out a subterranean fungus, relying on only a few pointers and perhaps the assistance of a creature with a keener sense of smell than you or I, is a completely different kettle of fish altogether. I had always disregarded truffles as something I was never going to find in the UK, until last autumn when I began to hear mutterings in and around Sussex of the South Downs having a rich history of truffle hunting, though sadly many of these fellows in the know have died and taken their knowledge and locations of the wild-truffle orchard with them.
Of the three truffles regularly sought after, only two are highly prized: The white truffle (Tuber magnatum), which hails from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, most famously the countryside surrounding the city of Alba and the black truffle or Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum) named after the region where it is found in France. The white truffle, with its pungent aroma, is perhaps the most valuable with the largest specimen to date, with a 1.5kg (3lb 5oz) beast, being auctioned for £165,000 in December 2007. The black truffle has a more refined, earthy scent with notes of umami capable of filling a room almost instantly. It is perhaps more affordable than its cousin at around £1,500 per kilo.
It might surprise (or disappoint) you to know that the third, the summer truffle (Tuber aestivum), with its milder aroma, is the only one we are likely to find in the UK and fetches a modest £180 per kilo.
Over the past couple of months my desire to harvest a truffle from the South Downs has become fanatical. When you find yourself in a library looking at soil maps of the local area, you have to have a word with yourself, so I decided to track someone down who might be able to help me on my quest.
If Indiana Jones had been into truffle hunting and had been a woman, then he would have been called Melissa Waddingham and would have lived in Horsham, West Sussex, with an excitable Labrador called Zebedee. I managed to track down Melissa on the internet through our mutual love of all things foraging. She agreed to take me on a hunt. Melissa has been chasing all members of the fungal world for the past seven years and trains dogs to become "trufflers", takes guided fungi walks and is even considering cultivating truffles. Her background in woodland management clearly helped her find her first jackpot some time ago.
By following a series of natural indicators, unaided I might add, she unearthed 13 fine specimens of Tuber aestivum. A good start. Being an avid forager myself, who regularly practises and teaches the ancient art at my Hunter: Gather: Cook school in Sussex, I know only too well how productive areas are kept schtum, not so much with plants, but definitely fungi, and if you're talking truffles, well, I was expecting to be blindfolded and have the phone with built-in GPS taken away.
As it happened, there were no such cloak-and-dagger shenanigans and we met on a glorious September morning on top of the Downs at one of Melissa's closely guarded wild truffle orchards. It soon became evident that it didn't really matter if I knew the location, since I didn't possess a well-trained truffle hound to sniff out the goods and Melissa knew it. It was apparent that when it comes to truffle hunting, knowledge and some sort of creature with a good snout aren't everything – look can be just as important, and I felt woefully underdressed for the occasion compared to my expedition leader in all her finery. I knew I was in good hands.
As we entered the wood, a mixture of ash, hazel and hawthorn, which looked just like any other woodland I had ever rummaged around, Melissa explained to me that having a truffle hound such as Zebedee is only the half the battle: you need to get into the ballpark first before sending out your star player. So I was put through my paces on how to locate a wild-truffle orchard.
"Firstly, you need to be on calcareous [limestone or, in our case, chalk] soil. This is why the South Downs are perfect. Next is having the right species of tree."
Melissa went on to explain that the mycelia of truffles (the fine white strands found in decomposing leaf litter- fungi roots if you like) form a symbiotic relationship with certain trees, predominantly hazel, beech and oak. Truffles help the trees by "fixing" the nitrogen and extracting and breaking down chemicals in poorly drained soils such as chalk. Although this is all going on below the surface, naked to the human eye, there is a tell-tale sign on the surface: truffles are alleopathic, which means they chemically inhibit the growth of any vegetation around them, and this is quite visible on the surface. "What we're looking for is a 'brûlée' or 'burnt area', devoid of any vegetation," Melissa explains.
As we wandered through the hazel, ankle-deep in dog's mercury, a common woodland plant that's quite poisonous, we eventually came to what I would have thought was simply a clearing, but was in fact a brûlée. Looking around, it must have been a good 30ft (9m) in diameter, with a smattering of hazel stands and, compared to the rest of the wood, an eerily perfect circle, devoid of any greenery.
"The next indicator within the brûlée is evidence of any digging or activity by woodland animals," Melissa says. She went on to explain that the truffle's method of reproduction and spore dispersal relies on animals attracted by the scent to dig them up, scoff them and deposit the remains elsewhere. No doubt humans could do the same – a quick pit stop in Hyde Park on the way back from a top London restaurant could prove lucrative in the future. Simply put, any kind of surface disturbance is a key feature.
This is where the ever excitable Zebedee or Zeb stopped picking up sticks twice his length and went to work. Melissa didn't have to do much to get him in the mood: a bottle of truffle oil was produced, sniffed and along with some encouragement and frequent use of the word "working", Zeb was off. It was a complete transformation of character: one minute he was childish and playful, next a serious MI6 snoop on the case. He snaked around the brûlée, snuffling the ground and showing particular interest in a patch of soil at which point I was handed a trowel and put to work.
As with any type of foraging, sustainability and respect for the environment cannot be stressed enough. Under Melissa's guidance, I was shown how deep to take back the leaf litter and how to replace it in order that the mycelium (fungi roots) should not be harmed. Also, she added, so that no one else in the know might recognise it as a truffle stronghold.
What we did find was a false truffle. Close, but not close enough. The rest of the day continued with the same practice, moving from brûlée to brûlée, but unfortunately it wasn't our day. Just like fishing or even looking for mushrooms, if they aren't there, they aren't there. As luck would have it, Melissa had come prepared and brought four large truffles from her last foray the week before. Now it was time to indulge. Truffles took me a while to appreciate. At first, I couldn't understand why this fungus that Plutarch believed was born out of thunderbolts striking the earth, was so highly regarded: to an amateur, it smells of wet dog and old socks. But then, I used to think beer was horrible.
What they are is something quite special. Truffles are as much about aromatherapy as they are taste, and because 70 to 75 per cent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell, then you begin to understand how the truffle works as an ingredient. You can't simply bite into a truffle as if it were an apple: to get the most out of it you have to use a mandolin to get thin, almost translucent slivers of truffle, which then reveals its intricate marbled flesh. Rarely cooked as this can compromise and reduce the flavour, the slivers are best sprinkled over a warm dish, such as the classic scrambled egg or wild mushroom risotto, through which the intense earthy perfume of the truffle, its very soul, will waft up to your senses and infuse every mouthful. That is why the truffle is so sought after (coupled with the prospect that they are about as easy to spot as sardine among a gang of pilchards).
We headed off the Downs to my local pub, the Rainbow, where head chef Dan Baker had agreed to cook up a few taster dishes using our summer truffles. After supping a well-earnt pint of Harveys, Melissa and I talked a bit about "black diamonds" and examined the ones she had brought with her: they had a heady aroma that was both earthy and quite nutty, these were mature truffles, ready to release their spores. Typically, truffle season is between September and May, and immature truffles picked before this will have little aroma or flavour. On asking the best way to store them, I was quite surprised, well, shocked actually, that most truffle oil isn't even made with actual truffles but with an organic compound called 2,4-Dithiapentane, derived from a petroleum base and infused with olive oil. Most truffle oil is fake? Yes. That explains why it is possible to buy a small bottle at a reasonable price.
We were invited into the kitchen to watch Dan in action. First up was a sweetcorn veloute made from nothing but fresh ears of corn stripped and blitzed into a sweet creamy consistency and warmed through. As Dan began to grate thin slivers of summer truffle I asked him how it would work with this particular dish: "The sweetness of the corn will tease out the sweetness of the truffle and the warmth from the soup will pass through the truffle and enhance the aroma," he said.
Next was a wild mushroom risotto followed by skate wing with a caper sauce and Provençal vegetables. In each case the truffles were used in the same way, to help accentuate certain aspects of the dish.
There is no doubt that truffles are a luxury ingredient, for the very reason that they have a rich taste and intoxicating aroma. They are not, as I found out, all that easy to find – it is this scarcity that holds their market value: plans in France to mass produce cultivated truffles has caused uproar as it would drive down the value of the elusive truffle. Truffles are not something you are going to use every day – that is why when you do get your hands on a "black diamond" keep it simple and use it wisely. My search is still not over, with or without a snout to help me, there is gold in them thar hills and I mean to have it, hold it, sniff it and then grate it all over my scrambled eggs.
Secret ingredient: the lure and lore of truffles
Finely sliced, raw truffles work especially well with chicken, veal, fish, omelettes, soufflés, pasta and rice.
For an exquisite roast chicken, insert thin wedges of truffle under the skin of the chicken 24hrs before roasting.
Truffle aroma also has the ability to penetrate eggshells, so pop a truffle in a bowl of eggs overnight in the fridge for the tastiest scrambled eggs ever.
Preserve truffles by storing them in good quality olive oil.
The reason pigs, especially sows, make such fine trufflers is because the pungent odour of the truffle is very similar to that of a male wild pig.
Truffle production has declined over the past century. In 1900, France produced around 100 tons, now it produces around 20 tons, 80 per cent of which are from specially planted truffle fields.
As with most ingredients that have a hefty price tag, truffles are also considered an aphrodisiac...
As of two days ago, after a soul destroying 12 hour drive, become French! And made it down just in time to put together a surprise party on the Beach for the Mrs (see above). Although I will be back next spring to get HGC school up and running again with a whole new exciting course structure, specialist days, banquets and even staff members! Expect plenty of French food adventures over the coming months...at last the year in Providence has begun!
Au Revoir. Weston Out.