I do like a bit of a forage- having a nice fondle of the hedgerows for your supper is a timeless activity that all humans, regardless of anything, will always take pleasure in. I wouldn’t say I’m a forager as such because I also forage for my protein, be it meat, fish insect or crustacean, just as much as I do for plants, fruit, nuts and mushrooms. So, for me, Hunter-Gatherer seems more appropriate, forager has murmurings of vegetarianism, although I doubt you would meet many that were, but lets not split hairs!
I’m incredibly happy with the fact I eat meat and even happier that I source most of it myself- I would like to wear a badge that says ‘carnivore’ or have a window sticker that says ‘No Meat, No Meal’. Screw it, I’ll even stick a flag on the top of my house. Its not that I don’t like my greens, because I love them equally, I just think they need something to go with them and vice versa. Eggs are meat too just in case you were wondering, or at least that’s how I treat them. If a mushroom fills the void between protein and veg…
…whats a truffle?
Other than a type of chocolate, it is a subterranean Ascomycete fungus of the genus tuber. So technically it falls under ‘mushroom’, the void between meat and vegetables. I’m sure I don’t have to go into a detailed description, many of you are aware of what a truffle is and that they are synonymous with fine dining, hence spenny to purchase. Gordon Ramshank managed to charge a fortune at his restaurants by putting it on everything, that and fois gras. Lets face it, folk don’t go to his restaurants for his personality.
I’ve never really understood just why it is truffles and people are attracted to one another? Its not like you would substitute it for perfume, but it is one that really appeals in a culinary sense- then again 70% of taste is smell. Truffle aroma is primarily made up of two things: Sulphides and Phenolic ether. It is the balance between these two, the muskiness of the sulphides and the savoury notes of the Phenolic ether. Pure sulphides will smell like canned farts so balance is everything and they can vary from truffle to truffle. To read more about truffle aroma visit this awesome website that will tell you everything you will need to know: http://www.delectations.org/aroma.html
I first got drawn toward truffles a few years ago, after hearing stories that truffles existed in the South Downs. Trying to track down if it was true or not, I went to the local information centre, otherwise known as the pub. There were a lot of blank faces, but then there were also a lot of ‘this one bloke told me…’
The internet proved more forthcoming, and after reading an article that was in Sussex life, I had a name of a local truffle hunter: Melissa Waddingham. I like to dabble with scribbling from time to time so suggested the possibility of a truffle hunt to the Independent, who agreed. You can read about the adventure that ensued here.
After spending a wonderful day with Melissa learning about everything Truffle, I was hooked, although there was one major issue, I didn’t have a dog, let alone a pig that I could use as a truffle detector and as such felt it would be a tough one to pursue. What Melissa did explain to me is that there are natural indicators that can narrow things down and put you right on the money. Her first find was without dog or hog. So if you are a bit of a truffle fancier, I would strongly recommend going out with Melissa on a hunt, or if you have a dog, she can train it to do the hard work for you! Get in touch with her here and join one of her next hunts.
The other day I had a call from Melissa saying that it was a good year for truffles so far and I might want to X and do Y. The South Downs covers a fair amount of land and beyond said murmurings, I had heard about X before as a possible location, so thought it might be time to strike out and lose my truffle virginity.
When gathering mushrooms and wild plants, you have the pleasure of being able to wander the woods, fields and meadows and spot what you are looking for. Quite how you are supposed to turn up in a wood and find something you cant even see because its underground adds a whole new dimension. Needle in a haystack this ain’t, because the needle’s been buried and the haystack is vast.
This truly is hunting, but not for anything with a vertebrae, a certain amount of ‘tracking’ is involved in the ultimate foray that will lead you to the buried treasure of ‘black gold’. But where do you start?
Make no bones about it, to hunt a truffle, even if you do have a porcine/canine detector or simply going solo, you are going to need to have a firm grasp of the natural world around you- think of it as putting yourself in the ballpark. Soil, Trees, Vegetation and animal activity all play a large part in tracking a truffle down. Below is my summary of how to track truffles- alas, I am an amateur and I am simply stating my findings- not the courts. Hit up Melissa for professional advice.
The type of truffle we hunt in the UK is the Summer Truffle or tuber aestivum perhaps not of the same quality as a Perigord truffle from France or the white ‘Trifola d’Alba’ from Italy, but personally I couldn’t give a shit: It’s an English truffle and that’s all you need to know.
Calcareous. That means chalky. So naturally, that’s where your ballpark starts. Soil type. Fortunately I live slap bang in the middle of the South Downs between Lewes and Glynde- I have more chalk and flint in my veg patch than I know what to do with
This can vary slightly, but some are better than others. Beech is king, but also hazel, hawthorn, ash and elm are quite happy to harbour a truffle or two as long as the soil is calcareous.
Vegetation: Brulees or ‘Burnt areas’.
So you’ve ticked off the first two, now the tracking begins. Once in your chosen woodland on the right soil, you have to observe the vegetation. Most woodlands in the UK have a standard set of ground level plants: Dog’s mercury, brambles, grasses, ivy and moss are all to be found. What you are looking for is a complete lack of this. These spots are called ‘Brulees’ or burnt areas, because nothing grows there. They can be around a tree or in amongst a bunch of trees, size wise- they can go from anything 5 ft to 30ft or be in a strip.
The reason this is such a good indicator, and will likely get you in the vicinity of buried treasure, is because the truffles growing beneath the surface let off VOC’s or Volatile Organic Compounds, basically- potent herbacides that inhibit the growth of any plants, which is why you get a ‘Brulee’.
Once you have found a likely looking brulee, simply stand and have a good look over it for any kind of disturbance. As truffles don’t surface like mushrooms, they don’t have a direct method of spore dispersal. This means they rely on fungivores (animals that eat fungi) to send out their spores. Simply put- animals dig them up, eat them and then shit out the spores somewhere else. Doubtless, we could do the same. Most woodland critters that can dig like rabbits or squirrels are responsible for this. Fresh diggings or slightly older ones that might be visible are good indicators within a brulee that there are truffles below your feet.
Now this is perhaps the most sensitive issue of all and involves a bit of care. All of the above have pointed towards the possibility that you are right on the money, so know the ‘digging’ begins. I must point out at this stage and stress the need for sustainability at this point. The woodland floor is a delicate ecosystem with strands of mycelium, bugs, grubs and a whole host of other things going on. You don’t want to upset this wonderful balance: ALWAYS make sure that any leaf matter or soil you disturb goes back into its rightful place, this is not only good for truffle futures, but makes your impact minimal. As humans, we’ve managed to screw everything else up, but lets not screw this up. Yes?
When looking buried for treasure, it is customary to have some sort of digging instrument, preferably a trowel. Lightly scrape back the leaf litter around your animal diggings until you find bare earth: the truffle likes to be in the soil but will quite often have the top 5th of it exposed above the soil- think iceberg, so do this delicately and lightly.
Truffles have a strong smell, familiarise yourself with it. Take some truffle oil with you to hone your sense of smell and get in the mood. When you scrape back the leaf litter you might get an almighty whiff if you’re lucky, otherwise just a tickle. As you scrape sniff the soil: if it smells sweet or truffle like then you are close- keep sniffing the earth. This is a grubby business and you are the truffle hound!
With any joy (and what a joy it is!) you will uncover your first truffle, which could be anything from the size of a marble to a golf ball, or bigger! After you’ve done a little jig and finished fist-pumping the air, REMEMBER to recover any area that you have scraped back as if now one was ever there.
So that’s a basic rundown on truffle hunting sans animals (although they do actually come into it). Its not an exact science and expect a lot of false starts before you may hit the jackpot. You will get proper grubby, sniff more earth than is probably healthy and get very wet knees (not a good look for me and HGC instructor Dave when we went for a celebratory ale afterwards: two lads in from the woods with wet knees and dirty hands? Hmmm.)
Finding your first truffle IS the ultimate prize in foraging. I have never found or shot anything that has caused quite the same level of elation- the buried needle has been found in the vast haystack. It requires patience, observation and a synergy with the natural world around you that can lead to a culinary treat that will have you eating like a king for days. There most certainly is gold in them thar hills…
As for recipes for this one? All you need is some eggs and a mandolin (not the thing Mumford & sons use). You do the maths (yes there is an S there- I’m not a yank).
Black Gold on top of the bible.
With Christmas on its way (I know, its November), Hunter Gather Cook Gift Tokens are flying off the shelves- If you want to get one for some lucky person to embark on an adventure in wild food, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.